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By Eating Our Words
They serve sautéed snapper at Red Onion Seafood y Mas, the Latin fusion restaurant on the Northwest Freeway. And I'm happy to report that they leave some of the skin on so you can tell that it's really Gulf red snapper. The fish I got was properly cooked so the meat stayed moist. And yet the flavor of the fish was lackluster, and the texture was too soft. Was it past its prime?
The presentation, complete with fried banana slices and shaved beet strip confetti, was spectacular. But the fish sure didn't get any help from its other accompaniments. According to the menu, the sautéed snapper comes "nested over fresh oriental vegetables." I pictured snow peas, seaweed, Japanese eggplant. But the verbiage should have tipped me off. A restaurant that uses the term "oriental" on the menu is probably as clueless about Asian food as it is about Asian sensibilities. The "oriental" vegetables consisted of carrot, celery and broccoli stalks cut thinly on the diagonal and stir-fried with soy sauce.
My dining companion ordered an entrée called a "duet" that consisted of a large piece of mushy rare tuna and another of passable salmon, both lightly coated with an innocuous sauce of orange, sesame and tarragon. The fish chunks were served over two purees, one of delightful mashed sweet potatoes and the other of pasty mashed purple potatoes. The "fresh vegetables" advertised with this menu item turned out to be broccoli and cauliflower florets with some carrot sticks. The presentation was fabulous. But the ingredients came up short.
12041 NW Freeway
Houston, TX 77092
Region: Outer Loop - NW
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Three-ceviche sampler: $19
Five-ceviche sampler: $33
Sesame tiradito lettuce wraps: $11
Beef Cuscatleco: $27
On a previous visit, I sampled the big fat crab cakes. Two of them were dazzlingly presented over a vibrant jicama-papaya slaw with fried banana slices and wisps of red onions for decoration. But the crab cakes themselves, made with jumbo lump crabmeat, onions, peppers and bread crumbs, were bready and tasteless, despite the fact that they contained a lot of crabmeat.
I also tried the beef Cuscatleco that night. The three-ounce medallions of beef are cooked to order (we got ours medium rare) and served on top of mini pupusasstuffed with black beans and goat cheese. The dish was sensational -- maybe the best thing I ate at Red Onion Seafood y Mas. Which tempts me to advise you to avoid the seafood and stick with the "mas." But that wouldn't be fair.
You can't judge Red Onion Seafood y Mas without considering its claim to fame: 13 innovative Latino-Asian ceviches.
I sampled six of the ceviches in my first two visits to the restaurant. Some of them were okay, but none of them rocked my world. I speculated that maybe I was missing something. The Peruvian-Japanese ceviche seemed underseasoned to me, but so does a lot of Japanese food.
So I called up a fan of the Peruvian-Japanese ceviche style and asked him to lunch. Peter Yenne is a Houston photographer who's been to Peru some 20 times since the 1970s. I've never met a more ardent admirer of Peruvian food in general or ceviche in particular. Yenne collects Peruvian cookbooks and does an excellent job of cooking Peruvian food in his home.
I met him at the restaurant and ordered the Red Onion ceviche -- a long, skinny platter loaded with five of the 13 innovative ceviches for the two of us to share.
We started with the lettuce wraps, which turned out to be our favorite. Five or six romaine leaves dressed with sesame oil sat beside some chopped tomatoes and red onions. Next to that sat a pile of raw tuna strips that had been lightly marinated in sour orange juice. We took turns making ceviche-stuffed lettuce tacos topped with tomatoes and onions. The heady taste of the sesame oil complemented the sour citrus and gave each bite a bold, focused flavor.
Bold flavor notes were exactly what was missing in the other four ceviche preparations on the platter. "Red devil" ceviche was marinated snapper in tomato and avocado salsa. It allegedly included minced serrano peppers. We couldn't taste any. "Don Mamon" salmon featured bland and squishy fish tossed with litchi fruit and a way-too-subtle blend of lemon-lime olive oil. El coco loco, fresh tuna with coconut milk, pineapple and fresh spearmint, contained too little mint to taste.
"Ceviche is supposed to be salty and tart with lots of chile peppers," complained Yenne. "You drink beer with it." The ceviches on the plate in front of us were undersalted, underseasoned and underwhelming. I got up and flagged down a waiter and sent him to get us a salt shaker. I was tempted to ask for some limes, a couple of serranos and a knife, too. We tried salting everything, but it only helped a little.
"It's confused," said Yenne about the piles of fish. "It's a jumble." Clearly, the chef didn't get it.
The style of ceviche Red Onion is attempting to imitate is called tiradito in Peru, Yenne told me. Peru, where ceviche was invented, has a huge Japanese population. Sushi bars there naturally borrowed elements from the native ceviche. Eventually, a natural fusion emerged; it combined Japanese sushi with traditional Peruvian ceviche. But like all raw fish preparations, tiradito requires a deft touch. Rather than marinating seafood for hours as in traditional ceviche, the chefs slice sushi cuts to order and quickly toss them with a marinade or top them with a salsa or dressing before sending them to your table with an array of accompaniments like lettuce, sweet potato or Peruvian corn nuts.