Yagu Asian Fusion is too flashy for its own good

Apr 28, 2010 at 4:00 am
Sushi chef Tim Jiang. See a slideshow from Yagu Asian Fusion restaurant in Chesterfield.
Sushi chef Tim Jiang. See a slideshow from Yagu Asian Fusion restaurant in Chesterfield. Jennifer Silverberg

Our server at Yagu Asian Fusion carried a plate on which a piece of food was balanced at a 45-degree angle against a flashing light. Not only did the light flash, but it cycled through eight different colors as it did so. Dance party, Chesterfield Airport Road style!

"That food has ground effects," my wife quipped.

Really, I thought, this couldn't be a regular occurrence. It must be a special dessert for someone's birthday. But, no — our server was headed toward our table, where we were celebrating no birthdays and hadn't ordered dessert. We were still awaiting our entrées, Malaysian red curry with chicken and, from the sushi menu, the "Sweet Heart Roll."

The dish with the flashing multicolored light was the "Sweet Heart Roll."

The roll itself was enough of a gimmick. In fact, it wasn't even a roll. Each individual piece, a "crunchy" spicy-tuna mixture inside the rice and very thinly sliced raw tuna on the outside, had been cut open and then arranged with another piece so that the slices of raw tuna formed the shape of a heart.

What did the flashing light add to this? Was it specific to the "Sweet Heart Roll," or did all of Yagu's "Special Rolls" come with such a light? Good questions, but neither was as pressing as my wife's: "How do I turn this thing off?"

(We eventually figured it out, but I don't want to spoil the fun for you. However, if you do like the flashing light, don't turn it off. While turning the light back on is no problem, getting it to cycle through the colors is tricky.)

Yagu opened at the very end of last year in the Boone's Crossing retail megalopolis in Chesterfield. It occupies a plain storefront in one of the smaller strip malls opposite the big-box stores, but the nondescript exterior isn't repeated inside. The large space — two contiguous dining areas as well as a sushi bar — includes trees, stone patterns and what look like hieroglyphics. The lighting is generally dim, with an orange cast that is unflattering to both diners and, crucially, food.

As Yagu's full name makes clear, its food is Asian fusion, a cuisine — or, rather, to be more precise, a "cuisine" — so outdated that you almost have to admire a restaurant for trumpeting it so boldly. Indeed, Yagu isn't shy about embracing cliché, from its menu, which features Chilean sea bass (the unlovely Patagonian toothfish, rebranded as the It Fish of the 1990s, now overfished to the brink of extinction), to the music, a chill-out-lounge soundtrack that could score soft-core porn or sell overpriced tops to teenage girls.

Flashing lights. Flashy decor. Fusion cuisine. So of course the best dish I sampled was the most unadorned and, presumably, the most unadulterated: the Malaysian red curry. This sneaked onto our table while we were distracted by the "Sweet Heart Roll," chunks of chicken and potato in a curry sauce that I might have described as a gorgeous, vivid red, were it not for the aforementioned orange-tinted lighting.

The Malaysian red curry was similar to a Thai red curry. To my taste, the sweetness of the coconut milk was more pronounced, while the heat from chiles was much lower. (A chile-pepper icon in the menu denoted this as a spicy dish, but only the tamest of palates will think it so.) Both the chicken and the potato were tender, their flavors unobtrusive, making them the perfect vehicles for enjoying the complex array of spices that marks a good curry.

Contrast this with the "Sweet Heart Roll," which for all its flourishes was rather bland, the clean flavor and luscious texture of the sliced tuna on the outside of the heart shape unnecessarily cluttered with the generically spicy and disarmingly crunchy (likely from bits of fried tempura batter) spicy tuna mixture on the inside of the heart.

The "Sweet Heart Roll" is one of several "Special Rolls." There are also the usual rolls (California, Philadelphia, spider, etc.) as well as a selection of nigiri sushi and sashimi. The sushi, in total, accounts for only a few pages of Yagu's lengthy menu, which also includes "Asian Classic" dishes like the Malaysian curry, the "Fusion Entrées," cold noodle dishes, fried rice, teriyaki, soups and appetizers.

The kitchen handles basic dishes with aplomb. Soups, for example, are excellent. The miso has a rich, smoky flavor, and for those who want something a bit more substantial, pork dumplings in that same miso broth is outstanding. The classic Thai soup tom yum gong isn't as spicy as it should be, but it is refreshingly tart.

However, the fusion entrées, the ostensible centerpiece of the menu, come off either as lazy sops to American tastes — filet mignon served alone or with lobster tail as "Surf & Turf," the former entrée transformed into a fusion dish by the inclusion of a "Japanese-style" rice cake, the latter by Mandarin sauce — or as unfocused ideas. The duck breast, for example, was roasted to a beautiful brown exterior and an ideal blushing purple-pink interior, but the meat's flavor was undercut by a generically tart sun-dried cherry sauce and a leaden potato gratin side dish.

The shrimp entrée fared better, each piece butterflied and then wrapped around a slice of avocado to add a light, fresh flavor. Still, the dish lacked that extra something, an inspired grace note, to make it memorable. This is the problem at the heart of Yagu. It isn't an "Asian Fusion" restaurant but an "Every Popular Asian Dish and the Kitchen Sink" restaurant. I suppose this makes sense from a business standpoint, appealing to the modern American diner, afflicted with food-attention-deficit disorder. But when you make such a blatant appeal to perceived popular taste and try to offer something for everyone, you rarely offer something of yourself.

Perhaps one day the light will go off in Yagu's kitchen, and they will refine their fare to make it truly distinctive. Then again, between the weird orange lights and the sushi with multicolored ground effects, if that light did go off, would anyone see it?