Sushi Blends With French Cuisine : Nouvelle Japanese Food Hits La Mesa

Louis XIV, the French ruler who once modestly requested that his subjects call him the Sun King, reputedly liked his food seasoned with soy sauce. Thus the monarch who built Versailles may also deserve to be credited with establishing a Franco-Japanese culinary dialogue that continues to this day.

When the nouvelle cuisine epidemic spread worldwide a few years ago, a few Paris-trained Japanese chefs were counted among its carriers. These men roamed from metropolis to metropolis, revising and lightening classic French sauces and teaching a new, more graceful style of presentation that obviously drew on the artistic themes of the East. But because San Diego has never been in the international gastronomic mainstream, none of these migratory chefs ever sojourned here and the style of cooking they continue to promote has had little impact on this city.

Fortune has smiled more brightly on La Mesa, however, which recently awoke to find itself annexed to the global village by the opening of Kappo, a Franco-Japanese restaurant that ladles some intriguing concoctions from its Occidental-Oriental melting pot.

It is somewhat startling to walk down La Mesa Boulevard and see signs reading "sushi bar" and "French cuisine" posted in adjoining windows of the same establishment. Taken together, these signs seem rather too contradictory to be taken seriously. But this contradiction is resolved in the person of chef-owner Kiyonobu Tanaka, whose fluency in the culinary idioms of both France and Japan is remarkable. Tanaka's interpretations of both cuisines tend more towards the traditional than the nouvelle, an unsurprising fact given that during his 15 years in Paris, he cooked at such temples of the classic haute cuisine as Le Tour d'Argent and Le Grand Vefour.

Some of Tanaka's cooking is stylish indeed. He is not afraid, for example, to prepare dishes at the table, even though most of the practitioners of the nouvelle style (and their followers) have dismissed such cooking as old-fashioned and insincere. To watch him make an order of steak tartare (billed by the menu as both la viande cru and sashimi of beef) can be a joy. With fork and spoon flashing merrily, Tanaka deftly blends lean, freshly ground beef with egg yolk, capers, chopped onion, parsley, Tabasco sauce, olive oil and fine Cognac; the mixture, smoothly textured and suavely flavored, is exquisite when spread on the fresh, hot toast fingers that arrive from the kitchen the moment the tartare is ready.

Raw salmon salad--called, unsurprising, salmon tartare at some nouvelle outposts--also is prepared tableside, but for those who like their raw fish cloaked in more typical Japanese garb, the menu offers a lengthy selection of sushi. The various seafood-and-seasoned-rice tidbits sampled seemed competently made, and all the fish tasted perfectly fresh. Since Tanaka evidently considers the ethnic status of some dishes inviolable, the sushi are arranged on traditional Japanese plates and chopsticks are available to those who dislike using their fingers. In the same mood, French preparations arrive on Western crockery.

The dinners include a semi-Western salad that benefits from the Japanese penchant for decoration but could use some help in terms of flavor; the dressing is entirely too bland. The menu does not offer the day's soup as an alternative but the kitchen seems willing enough to make the substitution, a fortunate circumstance given a recent cream of carrot that had more depth of flavor than so simple a soup could be expected to possess.

It is in the entree department that the marriage of French and Japanese influences most fully asserts itself. Although some dishes remain entirely faithful to their origins, others have been interestingly hybridized by cross-cultural breeding.

La Bouillabaisse Japonais, for example, combines attributes of the classic French fish soup with those of typical Japanese seafood soups; the fact that the finished product arrives in a Japanese-style metal pot, however, is a giveaway that the Oriental influence triumphs in this case. The broth, packed with shrimp and chunks of fish, is quite good, but its seasoning is too timid and restrained for it to be considered a true bouillabaisse.

The filet de bouef cutlet, on the other hand, dresses a Japanese classic with a French sauce, a pairing that works fairly well as long as the diner (like Louis XIV) enjoys brown gravy spiked with soy sauce. The cutlet, a nicely trimmed slice of steak breaded and deep fried in the Japanese kushi method, has a good if mild flavor nicely complemented by the crisp, golden crust. A sauce, as such, does not seem requisite (lemon would do just as well), but Tanaka adds a dark French brown sauce that might taste better were it less infused with soy.

The same sauce, minus the soy, did wonders for one evening's special entree, a serving of beef Stroganoff that Tanaka prepared according to the classic Western recipe. It was the simplest of dishes, really; Tanaka merely grilled a filet mignon and carved it into rare, juicy chunks, which he then arranged around the perimeter of a plate and doused with sauce (this time enriched with mushrooms and onions.) The artfully arranged garnish included a central mound of fragile green noodles, crisp potato balls, little bundles of excellent green beans, and cutouts of wonderfully flaky puff pastry.

The preparation of the whitefish dressed with three kinds of mushrooms also is very French, except that the mushroom garnish happens to include the extremely succulent type grown in Japan. The mushrooms are incorporated into a creamy sauce that seems based on reduced fish stock; this fine sauce gives a pleasant edge to the moist, oven-baked fish.

The dessert list offers ice cream or Tanaka's version of crepes suzette, a once-popular but now passe sweet. Tanaka prepares this dessert tableside, and the results justify the time he spends laboring over the steaming chafing dish. Sugar, butter and Grand Marnier all go into the sauce, which is thickened at the last moment with the addition of egg yolks and milk, so that it deliciously resembles a creme anglaise, or thin custard. A choice of fruit (peaches are quite good with this) and well-made pancakes are the foundation over which this sauce is poured.

The cart preparation and French-inspired dishes may make Kappo sound rather grand and pretentious, but it actually is most informal, quite on the lines of a good neighborhood eatery. Prices also are more in the neighborhood line, and the decidedly brief wine list offers a couple of drinkable and very inexpensive bottles.

Kappo.

8384 La Mesa Blvd., La Mesa.

466-7600.

Dinner served 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. weekends.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a modest bottle of wine, tax and tip, $30 to $50.

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