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.
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 pupusas stuffed 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.
The dressings or salsas have to be intense because they need to flavor the fish on contact. In Peru, an emulsified ají pepper sauce made with garlic, ginger, citrus and oil is one of the most popular tiradito dressings, Yenne told me.
The tiradito style was made famous in the United States by chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa. Despite many attempts, I've never managed to get into the exclusive Nobu restaurant in New York. But I did get to eat at the new Nobu location in the Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas a few weeks ago. Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños is one of Nobu's most famous dishes and a great illustration of the way he uses few ingredients to create big flavors. His "new style" sashimi is more or less the same as tiradito, except the marinade is heated. Just before serving, he pours a hot dressing over a dish on which slices of raw fish and slivers of garlic and ginger have been arrayed. The preparation cooks slightly on the way to the table.
Born in Japan, Nobu apprenticed in the sushi bars of Tokyo before he went to work in some of the best restaurants in Lima, Peru. Which gives him a bit of an advantage in the Asian-Latin fusion game.
Nobu is a tough act to emulate. When Rafael Galindo first opened Red Onion Seafood y Mas, he picked an up-and-coming talent to helm the kitchen. Chef Humberto Molina-Segura left the Cordúa clan's Artista to take over in the Red Onion kitchen. Galindo sent the chef to Lima to experience Peruvian-Japanese tiradito in its birthplace. Rumor has it that, in the beginning, Red Onion Seafood's kitchen was very good. But unfortunately, the chef who got the accolades doesn't work there anymore.
Molina-Segura left Red Onion Seafood y Mas about four months ago, according to the guy who answered the phone. He couldn't tell me the name of the new chef. I called back later and asked the hostess. When she returned to the phone, she told me the new chef was Rafael Galindo. Galindo is the owner of the restaurant, and his picture is prominently displayed at the front door. I can't say I ever saw him in the kitchen.
Lacking a steady hand on the rudder, Red Onion Seafood y Mas seems to be adrift. On a dinner visit, I overheard a patron at the next table ask the waiter, "Is this a Cuban restaurant?"
"No, it's South American," the waiter replied.
"Like from Panama?" she asked.
"The owner is from Honduras, but he goes to Peru twice a year. That's where he gets his ideas for ceviche," the waiter said.
"This one is not as Mexican as the one across the street," the customer said, referring to the Red Onion restaurant a few blocks away on the other side of 290.
"That's true," agreed the waiter.
There are three Red Onion restaurants in Houston, four counting Seafood y Mas. Honduran chef Galindo was probably inspired by the success of Nicaraguan Michael Cordúa, founder of Américas, Churrascos, Artista and Amazón Grill. I think Galindo originally intended to do similar high-concept Latin fusion cuisine.
The playful cooking at the original Red Onion features lots of fried banana garnishes, barbecue sauce made with guava, pineapple salsa and mango bits as garnishes. "Medallions of beef Colombia," a steak rubbed with Colombian coffee grounds, imitates Cafe Annie's coffee-crusted beef tenderloin. And Galindo's outrageous presentations are as wild as anything the nation's best Nuevo Latino restaurants have to offer.
But most of the menu at Red Onion is a more familiar parade of upscale Tex-Mex favorites: refried (black) beans, (goat) cheese enchiladas, chicken (chipotle) quesadillas and plain old-fashioned fajitas. As the author of a cookbook called Nuevo Tex-Mex, I've always been a fan of the Red Onion concept. So I expected to love Red Onion Seafood y Mas as much -- or más.
But after sampling 11 of the restaurant's 13 famous ceviches and four entrées, I have to confess, I'm not impressed. Everything on the menu sounds good, and the presentations are fantastic. But that only makes you more disappointed when your dinner turns out to be a flavorless combination of pedestrian ingredients.
Galindo has lost one of the city's top toques and hasn't yet replaced him. Whoever is pinch-hitting now is batting zero. So it appears that, for the moment, Red Onion Seafood y Mas is a restaurant in transition. I hope they find a chef with a knack for raw fish soon. Until then, I suggest you enjoy the great Nuevo Tex-Mex at the other Red Onions instead.
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