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The Culinary Travelogue 

Cafe Kati

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
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There's a place in Dallas called the Green Room that serves foie gras with cheese grits. This particular mélange might be the ultimate example of fusion cuisine. It combines wildly disparate elements from two distinct cultures into a unified whole that's successful enough in the alchemy of taste buds to have landed the Green Room a place on Gourmet's most recent reckoning of outstanding Texas restaurants. Presumably the plate creates enough simpatico between the suppleness of aristocratic French goose livers and the creaminess of rural American boiled hominy to storm the national (and socioeconomic) boundaries in question. It's the democratic, multicultural, mother-of-invention essence of fusion cookery at its apex.

The Bay Area may be an ideal setting for such cuisine: We've got a brink-of-the-continent audacity and strong pan-ethnic traditions dating back to the Gold Rush. Cafe Kati is a good and tasty example of the results. "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet," said Kipling, but he'd never been to Kati. Along with Eos, it's one of the best places in town to taste food that's impeccably balanced between the spicy complexities of Asia and the rich flavors of Europe and the Americas.

Cafe Kati is appropriately located in the Western Addition, one of the city's oldest and richest melting pots, in a burgundy Victorian flanked by boutiques, coffeehouses, and upscale hairdressers. Inside the cozy front room, red velvet draperies, a glassed-in wine cave, a hammered-tin chandelier, and wall paintings reminiscent of Lascaux create a casually graceful setting, while a larger room in back hums with the overflow and the small kitchen in between pulls together splendidly witty platters brimming with aromatic creations.

Kati's dishes are polished, less psychedelic versions of the brouhaha served at Flying Saucer and the Rooster, with intricately carved vegetables and spun-sugar chapeaux festooning architectural entrees of startling originality. Chef Kirk Webber, who has operated Cafe Kati with his wife Tina since it opened in 1990, funnels his CCA training and Mandarin Oriental experience into dishes that make fresh, all-of-a-piece gustatory statements with plenty of earthy zest. Each platter is like a self-contained culinary travelogue. Here the cross-cultural nature of fusion cooking doesn't overwhelm the essential integrity of a given dish. The delicious black bass entree, for instance, derives its character from the spices and bazaars of India. The fish is dusted with garam masala (a mixture of pulverized spices that contrasts nicely with the bass' clean, moist nature), cooked until crisp, and nestled against a cloud of basmati rice flavored with ginger and coconut. Striking a pungent note is the adjacent cluster of bright pickled tomatoes with a sweet, sun-kissed intensity heightened by jolts of mustard, coriander, and pink peppercorns. Curried chickpeas and pools of soothing raita complete the culinary portrait, redolent of cardamom pods and cumin seeds.

Another entree, the roasted duck breast, takes its inspiration from northern China -- with outstanding results. Around the plate's circumference alternate tender, slender baby asparagus, silky fillets of five-spiced, fat-ribboned duck, and perfectly crisp wontons filled with red peppers, pea sprouts, and succulent duck confit. Drizzles of star anise/soy reduction encircle a central mound of ginger-scented rice; a bouquet of parsley wrapped in a string of raw purple beet sprouts forms the peak. Then there's the pork tenderloin, a foray into the great American farm belt: Rolls of sweet, tender pig meat come wrapped in brick-red pancetta and stuffed with a smooth, puckery goat cheese dotted with fresh rosemary. The classic accompaniment, mashed potatoes, is in this case puréed to a soufflélike consistency and infused with sweet, tangy leeks. The result is a repast both sparklingly flavored and richly satisfying.

Before we get to those entrees, though, the meal begins with fans of crisp, spicy pappadam flatbread and a creamy yogurt dipping sauce. The star appetizer is the house Dragon Roll, a sinuous sushi of epic proportions. It's served on a large, oblong platter and carved into a half-dozen sections, making it possible to eat with chopsticks. A myriad of crisp, divergent flavors mingle within its scented-rice shell: sweet, tender prawns; crunchy carrots and cucumbers; shredded beets; rich, smooth avocado; hints of ginger and wasabi; and, encircling the whole, a salmon fillet as rich and as creamy as Scottish lox. Threads of peppery ginger flank either end, pools of horseradish purée await dipping, and verdant pea sprouts dot the top.

Alternatively, you could start your meal with the Caesar salad. It looks striking (leaves of romaine bundled into a vertical bouquet and wrapped in thinly filleted cucumber) but tastes perfunctory (the dressing has at best a distant relationship to anchovy and parmigiano, and the garlic crouton's just a stale slice of baguette). A better choice is the taco platter, and what a taco platter: four fried wonton wrappers overflowing with salmon tartare, ahi tuna, Dungeness crab meat, and contrasting accents of avocado, vinegar, wasabi, and a hint of wine. Each bite is a mouthful of the crunchy, the creamy, the sharp, and the tender all at once.

The desserts inhabit the Western-style section of the menu. The list includes a so-so tart filled with Meyer lemon mousse, slivers of strawberry and pear patrolling its circumference and a nest of spun sugar teetering at the top. A very good chocolate cake like a tiny volcano overflows with dense, fudgy, piping-hot chocolate lava, a scoop of wonderfully chewy and gelatolike vanilla ice cream melting into its depths. The best dessert is the banana fudge sundae, a top-drawer banana split in which two long slices of crunchy, caramelized banana flank a thick chocolate brownie, in turn topped with scoops of vanilla and banana-nut ice cream, a towering dollop of whipped cream, and the crowning touch: liberal drizzles of dense, semisweet hot fudge scented with brandy.

The hundred-item wine list is primarily Californian, well sprinkled with collectibles, and on the middle-to-upscale side -- 16 bottles are priced in the triple-digit range. But 10 vintages come by the half-bottle and eight by the glass, and Tina Webber's printed comments are helpful and incisive. There's a fine selection of syrahs to choose from -- the Domaine Rocher in particular is dark, deep, luscious, and especially complementary to the roast duck. Not unlike the complementary nature of a Mexican taco made of Chinese wonton and stuffed with California crab and Japanese tuna.

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