Got to Have Kaya Now ...
Fusion Cuisine Minus the Excess at Kaya Blue
Kaya Blue621-A E. Sixth, 478-8788
Lunch, Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner, Mon-Wed, 5:30-10:30pm;
Restaurants, like people, have distinct personalities. If you think about it, you can probably name some eating places that personify either an unpretentious next-door neighbor or a sophisticated society girl; a formal European aristocrat or a goofy, clueless teenager; a comfy, welcoming grandma or a slick, fast-talking business guy. The Austin boomtown phenomenon of the last couple of years has introduced a number of interesting new characters on the local restaurant scene, one of whom is Kaya Blue, which opened last August at the corner of Sixth and Sabine, on the eastern edge of the downtown club-and-restaurant scene.
The persona that Kaya Blue presents is that of a hip young traveler, back in town after multinational adventures -- exuberant and uninhibited, full of ideas and enthusiasm, well-grounded in the basics, but forever changed by the trip. Definitely cousin to some of the upscale new places in town, Kaya Blue aims to please the sophisticated palate, but is determined not to be stuffy in the process.
The first clue that you are in a place where imagination rules is the whimsical décor by designer Reg Land of Dallas. Once your eyes adjust to the romantically dim lighting of the dining room, they fall on the enormous faux-Baroque mirror directly opposite the door, campily reigning over the burnished red mahogany tables and the painted walls of swirling, jewel-toned blues, plums, and deep reds. Myriad twinkling candles and heavy velvet drapes -- along with dreamlike, Japanese-themed paintings, and ambient Euro-pop music of the techno/operatic school -- complete the vaguely surreal setting. My favorite decorative detail is probably the rock crystal-encrusted washbasin in the bathroom, reminding me of nothing so much as a tiny fairy grotto in some 19th-century folly.
This ironic, daring ambience aptly complements the culinary offerings of chef Alan Somers, formerly of Baby Louie's and Vespaio. Somers cooks with verve, style, and most importantly, vision -- riffing knowledgeably on the intense flavors of pan-Asian, Cajun, and Caribbean cuisines, morphing them deftly into new and usually compelling combinations. I know two definitions for the term kaya -- one is street vernacular for a Jamaican herb; the other refers to the Singaporean coconut paste commonly spread on bread. Intentional or not, both of these regional contexts resonate nicely with the food to be found at Kaya Blue.
As is often the case, the starters at Kaya Blue are some of the most interesting items on the menu. My absolute favorite is the thinly sliced, barely seared tuna topped with fresh crab, encircling a huge juicy scallop dressed in a delectable puff of wasabi mousse, all resting amicably in a bed of blackeyed peas and hot peppers. The large and filling Fondutta, a composition of melted brie and Monterrey jack, is loaded with spinach, crawfish, and tasso ham, drizzled with cilantro oil and spicy sambal (Indonesian red pepper sauce), and accompanied by chunks of bread and crisp veggies. It's a challenge to make warm cheese dip interesting, but this one succeeds quite admirably.
Both of the soups I've tried were exceptionally good -- I could cheerfully dive into the silky asparagus and crawfish bisque, complemented by crunchy daikon radish sprouts and toasted sesame seeds. Although I balked slightly at the idea of hot and sour tortilla soup, I found that the combination of intense essence-of-chicken broth, crisp tortilla strips, and Asian spices not only cures whatever ails you, but makes you love every intense bite.
Among the entrées, a stellar fusion offering is the Kaya Paella, a veritable platter of coconut and saffron rice subtly flavored with kaffir lime leaves, and surrounded by a rather enormous selection of mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams, and lobster. I also enjoyed the sambal-and-molasses-sauced babyback pork ribs, although the accompanying sweet potato purée seemed somewhat lackluster. A memorable special one evening was a juicy sliced chicken breast, stuffed with spicy crawfish and served with mixed sautéed vegetables and translucent rice noodles napped in soy and butter. While I found the vegetarian udon noodles with cilantro cashew pesto a bit bland, the chicken noodle dish -- blackened strips of chicken breast piled upon thin semolina noodles and julienned vegetables in chipotle cream sauce -- was quite invigorating.
On two occasions, the real showstopper entrée was the beef tenderloin medallions in a smoky, tomatoey, Cuban-style adobo sauce. The silky pink beef was just about the tenderest, most flavorful I've ever eaten, and I was equally captivated by the accompanying cinnamon-flavored crispy pancakes of sweet potato and jicama. Sadly, the third time I tasted the beef tenderloin, ordered medium this time, it was disappointingly ordinary, completely lacking the transportive qualities of the previous visits.
The desserts at Kaya Blue, also prepared by Chef Somers, change on a regular basis. Chocolate fanatics will be righteously fulfilled by the usually available Chocolate Teardrop, an intense and creamy dark-chocolate ganache lolling in a rich pool of raspberry sauce and studded with fresh berries. My favorite so far is the Voodoo Bread Pudding, moist and redolent with tropical fruit, surrounded by caramel sauce, and garnished with a tiny puff-pastry voodoo doll bristling with almond slivers. I was also quite taken by a pleasantly tart passionfruit cheesecake in an unusual caramel crust. The least exciting dessert I tasted was an apple baked in puff pastry with goat-cheese filling. Not at all bad, just not as interesting as the other possibilities.
Kaya Blue is open for lunch on weekdays; the offerings are similar to those of the dinner menu, although somewhat lighter and less expensive. In addition to the same soups, salads, noodle dishes, desserts, and many of the dinner entrées, you can get some mighty fine wraps at lunchtime. I quite enjoyed the lemon pepper shrimp wrap, corpulent with shrimp, toasted pine nuts, and mixed greens encased in a spicy chipotle tortilla, and accompanied by a cooling marinated cucumber salad, a small green salad with sesame vinaigrette, and a lagniappe of diced and spiced avocado. I look forward to trying the other wraps of jerk pork tenderloin and blackened chicken with dirty rice, as well.
The service at Kaya Blue is attentive without being obtrusive, and the waitstaff is well-versed in the sometimes complex combinations of ingredients. This is particularly important in a venue that serves dishes containing components and flavors that may be unfamiliar to some American palates. In addition, the chef is apt to stroll out and schmooze with diners, explaining new dishes and soliciting opinions.
The kitchen excels in uniformly lovely presentations. Mercifully, there isn't a food tower in sight -- no constructions precariously poised to collapse into unappetizing puddles at the first touch of a fork. These comfortably horizontal yet artful arrangements of food are served on large, heavy, deep-hued pottery, with the overall visual effect thematically reflecting the sensuous curves and intense color combinations found in the restaurant's décor. Almost all the portions are quite sizable and beg to be shared and discussed among friends.
Any of my eating companions will tell you that I am something of a culinary purist, and traditionally not very interested in what's ubiquitously been called "fusion food." That said, my dining experiences at Kaya Blue have taught me something about how the application of careful attention and educated imagination can produce some delightful gustatory surprises. Maybe an old dog can learn a new trick or two: I've definitely broadened my perspective, and I look forward to further adventures on the fusion frontier.