The thick tomato-coconut cream mussel broth at Torafuku is laced with chipotle-oil smokiness. Or is that the pork gyoza? No, the gyoza is dressed with brightly peppery shiso oil and yuzu-marinated green beans. Uh, wait, maybe the green beans were in the daily catch.
I exaggerate, but it is easy to get confused when five boldly flavoured dishes arrive in a spicy flurry all at once.
This is a winning food-truck strategy – crank it out as fast as possible and hammer the palate with turbocharged taste bombs – that has well served Clement Chan and Steve Kuan, owners of the popular pan-Asian Le Tigre. But having expanded into a sit-down restaurant, they might want to shift gears and slow down.
The rapid-fire execution was not an anomaly. It happened on two visits. On both occasions, we had been warned that the plates would arrive when ready. Yet, both times we were taken off guard and slightly annoyed. While not exactly apologetic, one server did explain that the kitchen is faster when the restaurant is slow; service is more staggered if it's busy. That makes no sense. When it's slow, the kitchen should have time to adjust.
This is not food-truck fare. Some of Le Tigre's more popular dishes have been elevated for the restaurant. Kickass Rice, for example, has been transformed from a messy rice bowl into rectangular morsels of aburi-style sushi. The rice, nicely seasoned with vinegar and mixed with herbs, is firmly pressed and topped with torched pork belly. Sesame seeds and crumbled nori add crunchy texture. Mayonnaise is dotted on the side of the plate so it is not overwhelmingly rich, unless the diner chooses to dip heavily.
This is a dish that deserves to be savoured, not muddled alongside the equally delicious yet competitively flavoured Brown Cow (meltingly tender Shaoxing-braised oxtail ladled over sticky mochi fingers), or Kickass Veggie Risotto (a savoury Italianesque rice bowl folded with butter, Parmesan, assorted mushrooms and topped with a soft-poached egg).
The all-at-once delivery certainly does not do the deep-fried dishes any favours. "Calamari" Done The Right Way is a plate of large, lightly battered Humboldt squid tubes served with a sweetly dressed arugula salad. When hot, the tubes are soft and the batter crisp. But after it sits for a while, as you try to plow through a little bit of everything else, the meat seizes up into rubbery toughness and the batter congeals with gummy, mouth-coating oil.
Welcome To The Gun Show (got to love the playful names) is a bowl of mussels that are indeed served in a deeply smoky broth, chock-full of cilantro and zested with lime. Instead of the standard frites, these Asian moules come with smashed, deep-fried fingerlings, almost like hash browns. Again, the potatoes are lovely, light and crisp at first. Ten minutes later, they turn into soggy, craggy grease traps.
Some dishes, mind you, are not great to begin with. Rye So Messy chicken wings are a twist on Korean Fried Chicken, marinated in rye and fermented-chili gochujang. After frying, they are thickly coated in a sweet mango glaze, which makes the crispness go limp and soft. The kitchen tries to add textural crunch by serving the wings on a bed of crumbled ramen noodles. But it does not really work.
Dr. Octopus vs. Mr. Tuna is an equally flawed duel: The simply delicious octopus is lost under a manically busy garnish of nori, tomatoes, radish and herbs; the tuna has a slimy texture under its tangy/spicy robe of an oddly paired Romesco sauce.
The kitchen has made some adjustments since the restaurant opened in July. This Is Not Tortellini must have confused too many diners. The excellent pork-filled dumplings are now shaped into crescents and pleated like gyoza, rather than being rounded and pinched as with Italian pasta.
But the menu still does not have many refreshing greens. And it has an awful lot of repetition (almost every dish is topped with an egg.) And some of the more popular items, especially the braised duck-leg ramen, run out often and early.
The raw, industrial design is a potential award-winner with its cast-concrete communal table, custom-made track lighting accented in leather and rough-hewn pottery plate ware. Yet for all the attention to detail – note the sound-absorbing wall panels made from cotton denim wool that are as functional as they are attractive – someone forgot to leave room for a coat rack. Where are you supposed to put your wet jacket when sitting on stools?
The cocktail program is also ambitious. Much like the food, the drinks are boldly flavoured. Take the Shogun, for example. This refreshing variation on the French 75, mixed with green tea syrup, yuzu, kaffir lime, basil and smoked pear bitters, is so intensely assertive it competes with the food rather than pairing with it.
Torafuku suffers from millennial syndrome. It is all about instant gratification and how good the various elements look on Instagram rather than fitting together as a harmonious whole. The food and the customers deserve more respect.