Photo by Matt OttoThere's something that happens in restaurants—I'm not ready to say it's gender—something that produces in my wife, Mrs. Mathews, the fast-frozen, illuminated-deer phenomenon. It may be the avalanche of offerings that stalls her like a Russian in a Wal-Mart; she's overcome by possibility, like Robert Frost contemplating two roads that diverged in a wood. She dithers—that's the word: it's from the Middle English didderen, to tremble, and has come to mean a kind of agitation combined with indecision. The fast-moving wheel of her otherwise powerful brain suddenly—and I'm talking generally, of course, but also specifically of a recent visit to Roy's restaurant in Newport Beach—lifts off the ground and spins nowhere fast.
She's caught between the rib-eye, she says, and the home-baked wild Scottish salmon. On the one hand, she's had Roy's rib-eye; she knows it's a can't-lose proposition. The salmon is, she says, a "gamble," "outside the box," a "risk."
In the time my wife was taking to make this Solomonic decision between fish and beef—so much riding on it—I had settled on Roy's three-course prix fixe, twice apologized to the attentive waitress and turned to contemplating the interior design (walls the muted color of Tuscan hills, the old-school booths, dramatic lighting and, particularly, one fine, absolutely gynecological, Judy Chicago-style rendering of an orchid).
An orchid: Roy's, you may know already, stop me if you do, is all about Hawaii—from the "Aloha" you get when you come in the door and the Israel Kamakawiwo'ole playing over the speakers to the blah, blah, blah about Tokyo-born founder Roy Yamaguchi, whose childhood visits to Maui, we're told, indelibly shaped his palate (and his palette) and led, mythically, really, like Ulysses without the Cyclops, sirens and suitors, from Tokyo to New York and Santa Monica to—this is key—Hawaii again, where he opened the original Roy's in 1988.
You're not a foodie, and neither am I; we could, you and I, get by sucking coffee-flavored meat-and-vegetable food supplements all day. Most of the stories surrounding food (and food reviews, including this one), like an artist's story about his art, strike me as incidental to the mostly meaningless, merely biological act of eating. Mrs. Mathews disagrees. The life/death, rib-eye/salmon choices in her life are manifestations of the seriousness with which she and a few others seem to take their food; the story itself is somehow sustenance, grain-like, a staple to be consumed along with the entrée or before: the prayer of the Native American over a fallen buffalo, maybe. And the story at Roy's is "fusion." Yamaguchi's "fusion" is a creation story—like Yahweh and Adam; like Pan Gu creating the earth, heavens and ancient Chinese; like the obsidian knife that impregnates Coatlicue and yields the Aztec universe—in which the foods of Hawaii are brought together ("fused," you see?) with the foods of Japan. We could talk for hours—while sucking our supplements—about postmodern cuisine (about Foucault, Husserl, Miles Davis and Roy Yamaguchi). But cooking is all fusion, isn't it—all adding this to that? Wasn't the first meal involving more than a single root an act of fusion? Whatever: Yamaguchi has been fusing ever since, and with great success; he is now the Wolfgang Puck of some 31 eponymous restaurants in North America. "Cooking has been my life," Yamaguchi says in the menu. "Thank you for making it yours."
Except I haven't made cooking my life: I'm the beef 'n' veggie supplements guy; cooking is Mrs. Mathews' peculiar obsession. She finally settles on the salmon; she is out of the box. The trembling begins.
"Now I'm worried I ordered wrong," she says. "I wonder if I'm going to like it. Maybe I should've gotten the rib-eye. I know the rib-eye is great."
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I point out that it's not too late to change, and I can see her weighing this heaven/hell possibility, branching off like a logic tree into an infinity of either/ors. She sips from her Cosmopolitan.
She has not ordered wrong. The rib-eye, I recall, was a wonderful, tender cut. But this wild Scottish salmon is—there's no better word for it—a revelation, butter-rich, dessert-rich, but rubbed with a rub that I wouldn't call hot, exactly: it seems to glow, somehow; the menu calls it "dynamite." None of this—the richness, the dynamite—can mask the subtle amber smoking that enhanced the meat somewhere between river and table. And it's piled high in the fashion of a few years back, two thick cuts laid atop a foundation of wild rice and mushrooms, buttressed with a couple of carrots and ears of baby corn. At the very top, a good four inches above the plate's surface, there's this little wig (or rooftop garden) of herbs and baby greens. It's an architectural marvel, and off to one side of the plate, at about 12 o'clock from Mrs. Mathews, there's this little dollop of impossibly orange roe; it explodes in my mouth like that scene at the end of Hesse's Siddhartha when Govinda bends down to kiss Siddhartha's forehead and sees people killing and loving and animal heads and fish swimming—the little eggs popping like a hundred possibilities extinguished between my teeth; salt, sea, Horton Hears a Who!, life.
My own prix fixe is every bit as good. The appetizer sampler gave me just the right variety of tastes—a fiery little rib, a firm shrimp, a plump pot sticker. Where the salmon is like an act of creative genius that declares itself in your mouth, the gentle almond-crusted mahi mahi requires real lingual attention to detail. But the payoff on the prix fixe—the exclamation point, the winning SuperLotto number—is the chocolate soufflé, the bakery treat with the hot, dark chocolate surprise inside. And when Mrs. Mathews was done with about a third of her giant god-sent salmon, she wondered, tasting my soufflé, if maybe she had ordered wrong. "It's not too late to change your mind," I said.
Roy's Restaurant, 453 Newport Center Dr. (behind Hard Rock Café), Newport Beach, (949) 640-7697. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Full bar. About $80 for two, including a Cosmo and tip for very fine service. All major credit cards accepted.