By David Nelson
ET TU, ASIA-VOUS? What’s to like about the new Asia-Vous in downtown Escondido? Dinner and lunch, for starters. And the décor is something to see. Colors unraveled from the purple fringe of the spectrum weave a theatrical mood and suggest that Riko and Kim Bartolome (the chef and patronne shared decorating duties) could have pursued a career backstage. Burgundy flows through this comfortable space to salute the stylish wine card, and the playful dots on the purple-upholstered banquettes float like iridescent bubbles rather than polka. In the shadows of a purple hallway Jean Cocteau might have craved for Beauty and the Beast, a curving wave of mounted votive candles makes Gerbera daisies, in vases on the facing wall, dance like colorful wraiths. West Grand Avenue has become inland North County’s Great White Way of restaurants. Riko Bartolome first stepped into the spotlight some years ago at 150 Grand. The street also claims Vincent’s Sirinos and Bistro le Bouchon, as well as numerous less-formal eateries that offer attractions of their own. But none makes so visible a star of its chef as Asia-Vous. Silk hangings frame the scrubbed glass windows that partition kitchen and dining room and portray Bartolome and his crew as players in an appetizing drama. It probably will be a long-running show, although the kitchen lighting produces a lessthan- entertaining glare.
Then again, Kim Bartolome and her white-jacketed servers offer guests a convincing version of le bon acceuil, the enthusiastically warm welcome French restaurant patrons demand and usually get. If Asia-Vous is the talk of the town, the babble one evening caused a guest to complain of “a bad decibel level.” Perhaps, but the mood was lively and fun, compliments rarely earned by area eateries.
Riko Bartolome has made a specialty of East-West fusion cuisine throughout his career (he was the original chef at Rice in downtown San Diego’s W Hotel). The name Asia-Vous suggests a rendezvous with the flavors of the Orient.
Attractive and imaginative rather than experimental, the menu ranges widely in its inspirations. On occasion, the potage du jour ($7) will be a Portuguese bean soup that warms a chilly day thanks to the linguica sausage that spices this rustic but sophisticated brew of beans and greens.
“It smells nourishing” was a guest’s observation of one evening’s creamy soup of corn, potatoes and bacon, presented with considerable stagecraft in the lower third of a deep black bowl, as if it were a milky lake cupped in a range of basalt mountains. The flavors were pleasant, if less bold than the look.
Making a ménage à trois of sweetbreads, cubed pineapple and slices of sharp Chinese sausage ($13) isn’t just smart— it’s brilliant. The stuff of fantasy, this appetizer plays a clever game of flavors and textures all around the plate. Recent menus have offered such equally intriguing starters as mesquite-smoked yellowtail with an exotic pumpkin relish and preserved fennel ($12) and an elegant dish of gnocchi, lobster and squash blossoms accented with Tahitian vanilla ($16). The gilded orbs that issue with some frequency from the kitchen are suave globes of goat cheese, tempura-fried and mounted on slices of roasted butternut squash ($9).
BARTOLOME CREATES endless visual drama. At one dinner hour, a big hunk of juicy cold-water halibut sat dramatically atop a purple cake of sticky rice, while yellow sabayon sauce streamed down the sides ($24). Similar in texture to hollandaise, the sauce was unexpectedly sweet, a quality that worked ever so well with the fish. Other happy offerings have been choice Sea of Cortéz scallops set adrift in a saffron-coconut broth ($24), and a glamorous Kurobuta pork chop garnished with the twin wonders of a curried apple strudel and carefully flavored sweetsour cabbage ($29).
More in the strictly meat-and-potatoes vein is a presentation of grilled Kobe beef top sirloin with foie gras–flavored butter and puréed potatoes ($27). The English ideal of “meat with two veg” is stood on its ear by a hoisin sauce–glazed lamb rack with tender English peas and mashed carrots ($30). Bartolome takes note of vegetarians with such suave specialties as udon noodles tossed with shaved truffles, white truffle essence and a cargo of roasted mushrooms.
And those aren’t just any old mushrooms. On the enjoyable lunch menu, a remarkable stroganoff ($16) of cubed Kobe beef is lavished with a variety of forest-harvested fungi. Built with considerable forethought, the serving spoons meat, mushrooms and lightly creamy sauce around a mound of white rice centered in the bottom of a broad bowl. A decoration of cornichon pickles is a grand idea matched by the cross-hatched tempura vegetables arranged above the rice. Bursting with flavor, the vegetables also bring a crunchy texture to the plate.
Desserts seem worth their uniform $8 price tag. The strawberry “O” is so named, says Kim Bartolome, because the white chocolate–strawberry cobbler is “oh so good.” That may well be, but there is no question that the royal chocolate tian, a molded chocolate mousse that rests on a round of chocolate cake and a julienne of candied fennel, is more pleasingly clever than a dessert has the right to be. Nuggets of almond nougat add “chew” to the serving.
It is less easy to find Asian influences for sweets than for savory dishes, but Bartolome manages quite successfully with his thoughtful “A study of tea,” a crème brûlée trio flavored with green tea, Earl Grey and chai.
The wine list is well-written, although it could offer more congenial choices to the wallet-impaired. The least expensive white by the glass, an Olivier Leflaive from France, is excellent—and costs $9. The check mounts accordingly, and unless each guest truly wants just one glass, a bottle is the wiser buy.
Asia-Vous serves lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday at 417 West Grand Avenue in Escondido. Reservations are advisable; telephone 760-747-5000.
location: 417 West Grand Avenue, Escondido
chef: Riko Bartolome