By Laine Doss
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We also rather hoped that if we sat without ordering long enough, we could make a meal of kitchen snacks alone. The basket of dense jalapeno-flavored cornbread (tasty despite its below- room-temperature chill) even with its odd partner, a banal baguette, seemed another welcome choice. But service was excellent and left us without excuses; we ordered promptly, starting with what were by then unnecessary -- at least in terms of appetite -- appetizers.
A "sharing" plate, Van Dome's term for a serving bigger than an appetizer but smaller than a breadbox, offered special delights. The swordfish "sticks," for instance, wrapped with christophine (chayote squash) and served over a Bahamian chowder reduction with blistered bell peppers, red onions, and new potatoes, presented a beautiful amalgamation of flavors. This sturdy fish held up well under the strength of pepper and onion, yet the gentle flavorings of squash and potato were neither ignored nor overlooked. We enjoyed as a less hearty counterpoint another excellent dish, the "little plate" of sweet, delicate Maine lobster and couscous salad with Moroccan harissa (a chili paste often thinned with lemon juice and oil to make a salad dressing, marinade, or condiment for couscous) and a minted lemon vinaigrette. The fine quality of this seaside refreshment was perfect for summer, the harissa hardly adding its own heat to the weather.
Fish entrees were also superb. The Key West yellowtail, pan-cooked and served over steamed crab and tiny shrimp with a rich and aforementioned slightly acrid citrus butter, was prepared with a tender, careful hand. And tuna glazed with hoisin sauce and served with Asian pears, sesame, coriander, and the delicate somen noodles were moist and had a good texture, just right for the evening. Somen, known as a summer noodle, is the only Japanese noodle used traditionally in shojin (temple) cooking. Though I doubt the hoisin sauce would have been welcome in a temple, I found this pan-Asian dish delicious, served at the shrine of Van AkenDome.
The eclecticism did not always succeed, however. The shredded and chopped duck "bang-bang" won tons with morito chile mole and a tropical fruit salsa reached too far abroad for influence, a risk with which Van Aken is always flirting. Taken separately the won tons were crisp and light, the mole was pure silk, and the tropical salsa a cool treat. Combined, the flavors of northern China, Mexico, and the Caribbean refused to mesh, jarring the palate with discord and the knowledge that a New World, as the pilgrims discovered, isn't always a friendly world, or better than the one left behind. At Van Dome, however, at least you can pretend it's decadence as usual.
Since my visit, I have learned chef Randy Zweiban has left Van Dome. Sous chef Jon Kiewel is now head chef.