By Ron Bechtol
"That boy can cook," says La Mansion Executive Chef, Scott Cohen, and Cohen ought to know: Stevie (as he calls himself) Paprocki was on Cohen's line at Las Canarias before becoming the chef at the Fig Tree, a River Walk institution that seemed to gain a new lease on life during his tenure.
Currently Paprocki is heading up the kitchen at Ocean Star, a Pacific Rim restaurant recently opened in the original Crystal Baking Company space (and still showing vestiges of that frontier-baroque interior) by the folks who brought us the more conventionally themed Mencius Gourmet Hunan and Formosa Garden. That Paprocki has had little or no Asian experience might even be considered a plus in a fusion situation that, according to the menu, "is an open-minded approach to food which blends flavors and cuisine of the Pacific Islands and the Orient with a dash of California freshness and Southwestern spice ... the chef's imagination `is` your passport ..." Sounds good, anyway.
Tastes good, too, if you happen to start with the crab cake served over a poblano-laced aioli and a drizzle of incandescent chili oil; the lush crab and volcanic sauces play with one another in perfect yin-yang precision. The potential for playful parity between Prince Edward Island black mussels and their chili coconut sauce broth exists as well; I almost desperately wanted to like this dish (which can be had either as appetizer or entrée). For their part, the mussels were impeccably fresh, but the sauce lacked the chili component that might have turned the sweet coconut flavors (much like Coco Lopez), to advantage. This may be an uphill battle against popular taste, but I'd tone the sweetness way down and add some chili.
Variations on traditional themes are fine when they add something positive, of course, and the firecracker shrimp are a case in point. The shrimp themselves are pretty standard tempura models - with one exception: a confetti coating of red and green bell pepper that gives the plate a sprightly, festive look. (Oh, yes, the shrimp are huge and beautiful.) Add to this a very successful roasted garlic saffron sauce and mashed potatoes that are lightly chili-spiked, and you have a plate that decidedly defies borders - and works. We loved it.
Coming in second were the drunken scallops, marinated in saké. Accounting for much of the flavor was a hoi sin glaze that added a sweet-smoky quality to the large and tender mollusks. Sautéed rice with bean sprouts took up much of the plate, however, and while both scallops and rice were good, the dish lacked the color and snap of the shrimp; if a fusion sensibility was at work, it lacked conviction.
The crispy flounder, a Pacific Rim specialty highly recommended by dinner companions who had had it a couple of times before, this time offered even less in the way of fusion fission. Granted, the whole flounder was beautifully presented, then whisked back to the kitchen for filleting; the process was swift and sure, just as most of the service at Ocean Star. But the apricot sauce, about which I'd expressed doubts only to be assured that it was subtle and not much of a player, was cloying and overbearing; the mild and exquisitely fresh fish never had a chance to shine.
Desserts aren't made in-house at Ocean Star, and Pacific Rim influences aren't immediately apparent in much of the selection. The Banana Caramel Cheesecake Xango might come the closest - especially if it's thought of as a kind of cross between a burrito and a fried banana. A filling of caramelized banana and something that might once have been cheesecake come enveloped in a sweet, fried wrapper, served in a puddle of caramel sauce and accompanied by cinnamon ice cream. I kept thinking that something was not quite right - and yet, I kept eating. More overtly sophisticated is layered mousse of hazelnut with praline, chocolate cake, and black cherry cream sauce. There may be too much going on here, but I'm a pushover for hazelnut, and the combination of textures was both intriguing and rewarding.
Normally, too much going on is a red flag for this reviewer, and "fusion confusion" has been cited on more than one occasion. But I'm going to suggest here that too much caution is equally unfortunate. Dishes such as the rice paper wrapped salmon, sampled early-on when no notes were being taken, needed some technical adjusting, but showed real flair. Let 'er rip, Stevie; you can always put the brakes on later. •