I must say it caught me by surprise. I never expected to see superstar chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s avant garde Alinea on Central Avenue, much less at The Mango Tree. True, Achatz acknowledges his debt to Japanese cuisine, but it’s more about finesse than noodles and sushi.
As I eavesdrop on his conversation urging the folks at this new Japanese fusion spot (wedged between La V and Il Ritorno) to up their game, it’s then that I awake. It takes a few moments, as it often does in that transition from slumber to cognizance, for me to realize that the projection of this admired chef into St. Petersburg’s culinary world comes from my subconscious. It’s all a dream.
You see, as I drift off to sleep on the night of my tasting, I’m looking for a hook to help describe the dining experience earlier that evening. We had a good time; I brought some out-of-town guests who had little exposure to sushi and the like. Encouraged by me to take the leap and fully immerse themselves into a new gastronomic culture, we have a chopsticks lesson.
I confess that I still often feel like a novice, but I believe that full immersion and authenticity helps in creating a multidimensional culinary encounter. So for our starters, we try two iconic preparations: crab shumai and shrimp tempura. The tender dumplings are tiny and ideal for a chopsticks lesson. If you master the basic pincer motion, these small crab bundles are perfect — easy to grip, with a quick dip in soy, and a successful trip to your mouth.
The shrimp and veggie tempura appetizer has a crisp coating that’s not at all greasy. The shrimp are a good size (though there are not many) and the veggies, which appear to be onions, squash, and maybe eggplant, are equally satisfying.
The result is as expected: The beef provides bits of umami, and the veggies are not overdone. The rice is presented in a separate bowl so the guest is in total control of the mix.
The kashu yaki noodle dishes also present no surprises. Chicken with cashews, mushrooms and bell peppers comes either with the nutty-flavored yakisoba buckwheat noodles or the more neutrally tasting udon noodles. The veggies provide welcome texture and color, and there’s a good balance of chicken with nuts.
The most interesting and visual offerings are the ramen noodle soups. Among the many options, we land on the shoyu ramen. The dark soy-based broth provides a salty bath with plenty of punch for the comforting noodles, complete with char siu (roasted pork) and garnishes of fresh corn, scallions, bean sprouts, menma (braised bamboo shoots) and two slices of narutomaki. While this kamaboko cured fish cake doesn’t have much taste, the bright pink spiral center mimics the whirlpools of the Naruto Strait in southern Japan not far from Osaka. Although it’s not a distinct adornment, it’s a lovely touch.
My table finds the dish’s half hard-boiled egg, floating like a yellow eye that stares back at the diner, to be a problematic garnish. After spending some time in the concentrated broth, it takes on an unappetizing gray patina, at least for my English guest. He happily passes it on to me and quips, “It looks like a remnant from the dungeon in Warwick Castle.”
When I had really transporting sushi at an omakase tasting, the sushi artists used an array of secrets to create explosive tastes. This, however, seems to be on autopilot. The same is true of the miso soup with the usual tofu, scallions, seaweed and house salad of mostly iceberg lettuce with grapes, grape tomatoes and strawberries in a light ginger dressing.
Dessert is rarely decadent at an Asian restaurant, even one that promises fusion. The mochi rice wrappers filled with mango, red bean and green tea ice creams are underwhelming. While you’re not likely to see red bean with green tea from Ben & Jerry’s, the flavors are timid.
We also try green tea cheesecake not made in house. Two thin frozen pieces share a plate with a mound of chocolate syrup-drizzled whipped cream, plus a few strawberry slices for garnish. As we let a bite of cheesecake thaw in our mouths, there’s not much of an impression except some creaminess as it softens.
Still, my guests are pleased with their Japanese gastronomic baptism, even though it’s not the meal from my dreams.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.