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YUM AND YANG

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Like many New Yorkers, I eat out often. Over the past few years, I’ve had countless good meals and a handful that I’d deem great. Only my recent dinner at Nouvelle, a "French-Asian fusion" restaurant in Bay Ridge, qualifies as extraordinary.

The chef of this remarkable eatery is Andy Yang. Before opening Nouvelle in September, Yang was the executive chef at Nobu in Los Angeles, one of the restaurants owned by the famous Nobu Matsuhisa, who has three Nobu eateries in Manhattan. Yang is considered the "finest sushi chef in the world" by none other than "Iron Chef" Masahuru Morimoto, who was a fan of Yang’s cooking when Yang was the executive chef at Hutsuhana, a stellar Japanese restaurant in Chicago.

Yang owns Koo in Connecticut, and is about to launch Yang on Staten Island. His partner in his Brooklyn venture is Jenny Nguyen, who serves as a gentle presence in the front of the house.

You can call Nouvelle a Japanese restaurant and be correct. There are all the traditional dishes of Japan - miso soup, sushi and sashimi - and they’re wonderful. Yang has fish delivered daily from a Japanese market, so anything you consume there is top grade, sushi-quality fresh. There are Thai soups and curries too, so a meal can be based on that cuisine if that’s what you crave.

But, the best way to experience Nouvelle is the "omikase," or chef’s choice, a tasting menu of five courses. (Plates can be added at an additional charge.) With the "omikase," you’ll sample Yang’s personal style of Asian fusion cooking.

"I use up to four kinds of cuisines in one dish," he says. "I want everything I cook to be healthy and exciting."

Exciting it is.

Even dishes that blend Mexican and Japanese ingredients that, in the wrong hands, could add up to unseemly pairings (eel burrito anyone?) taste light, balanced and utterly unforced.

The environment Yang and Nguyen have created is tailor-made to echo his menu’s contemporary bent. There are two dining levels, each with a distinct personality. The upstairs is a modern room that is sophisticated yet casual. Diners sit upon gray velvet banquettes; the tables are white and set with simple bamboo mats; and panels of frosted glass hang along one wall. There is a sushi bar at the end of the room where patrons can watch the chefs perform their slice and roll dance. Later in the evening, the room hums with an energetic buzz of conversation that never reaches a din.

Downstairs has the ambience of a lounge with moodier lighting, a glowing wall of glass shelves that hold a red-lit display of sake bottles, and a bar manned by a bartender who delivers a smooth, icy cold martini. The best is the litchi. (The ginger is enjoyable, but a touch too sweet.)

Of all the beguiling dishes Yang served during my dinner there, the most memorable is the "Mission 06." Yang begins with pieces of raw tuna, yellowtail salmon, striped bass and Spanish mackerel molded into a leaf shape. He layers the "flower" with a thin icing of black caviar, then crowns it with a small quail egg topped by a mound of lobster salad. The fish base is subtle; the shellfish is mixed with a touch of chili paste so there’s a bit of heat without losing its inherent sweetness; and that egg drips over the works, making each bite taste creamy.

There’s a cold, crisp ceviche (raw fish "cooked" in citrus juice) made of Alaskan red crab, squid, octopus and fluke, given crunch with fine slivers of red onion and cucumber. Tiny cubes of mango lends their musky cinnamon quality while cilantro adds a fresh note. Yang serves the mix in a small square and splashes it with "yuzu" juice (a Japanese fruit similar to an orange) given spice with black pepper, garlic and ginger. It sounds fussy, but there isn’t a discordant note.

And, like all of Yang’s carefully plated dishes, the ceviche is a beauty. A red rose petal crowns the disc.

Yang serves shrimp tempura with a coating so thin it’s almost transparent. Each shellfish is drizzled with two sauces: Japanese white radish, soy sauce and sweet plum wine, and a soft orange-colored blend of "yuzu" and yogurt. Both are terrific.

So were rare, seared tuna slices complemented by a mix of lettuces tossed in a spicy onion dressing.

I’m reluctant to mention the name of this dish, because it sounds like one of those silly concoctions that give fusion cooking a bad name: "crabmeat pizza." His base is a lightly grilled tortilla round spread with a thin layer of well-spiced guacamole. Over that are lightly cooked pieces of sweet king crab meat. Yellow chili paste sprinkled with chives adds zest to the plate. It’s a far-reaching melange of ingredients that should sink like the Titanic, but are absolutely, deliciously right.

Two rolls bare the Yang stamp: one features lobster with the rice swapped for crisply fried phyllo dough. It’s generously filled with shellfish, Asian bean sprouts and mango. There is crunch, sweetness and the richness of lobster in every bite.

The "Nouvelle roll" contains asparagus, tuna, king crab and mango. Instead of the grain coating, Yang uses rice paper that lightens the flavor. The roll is swiped through a sauce of honey, cilantro and ginger that could be cloying, but has only a tinge of sweetness.

Not a big fish eater? You’ll be wowed by his rib eye steak. He serves three large pieces, rare and smoky from the grill, with perfect plate mates: a little fried roll filled with nutty mashed taro root and a disc of taro root that’s fried like a potato pancake. Both soak up the beef’s jus but remain slightly chewy.

The real celebrity of this four-star plate is the wild mushroom sauce deepened with wine and truffle paste. I could eat it by the bowlful.

We were too full to partake of the desserts. "Tokyo pie" with a phyllo crust and mixed tropical fruits, and the "bamboo cheesecake" that, Yang says, is "not as heavy and sweet as the American version," have a similar cross-cultural theme.

When you leave Nouvelle, you’ll feel lucky that you paid about a third of what a meal like this would cost at Nobu - and that you have the experience of Yang’s dishes to savor.

 

Nouvelle (8716 Third Ave. between 87th and 88th streets in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12-$15. "Omikase" is $50 for five courses. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For reservations, call (718) 238-8250.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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