The Origin of Joe
Bangkok native Thanu Sinevang got his culinary feet wet in a little hometown joint called the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. That was in 1968. Four years later Thanu moved to America, whereby an apparently pronunciation-challenged chef dubbed him "Joe." This has been his moniker ever since, though after a maturing tenure at Windows of the World, and star-turning stint at Rain in New York, most people just refer to him as a terrifically talented chef. Now Joe has arrived in Miami as executive chef of Origin, the contemporary Asian restaurant that opened on South Beach this past September. Mr. Sinevang may be a newcomer to South Florida, but he's quite familiar with his new boss, manager/owner/daughter Lena Sumonthee.
Origin's décor is minimal, with earthy hues of salmon, chocolate, bamboo, and stone. Water runs down a glass wall behind the sushi bar. The hiss of woks escapes an animated open kitchen. Smoke rises from a bowl of steamed edamame beans, placed before us shortly after being seated -- along with a mouthwatering menu of Thai, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, and Chinese elements adeptly and minimally described, albeit with few geographic clues as to what comes from where. So pan-roasted salmon is defined as being "with crabmeat, spinach, and scallion pancake in saffron green curry," absent any hint that this is a Korean "burbong" sauce. The menu also won't tell you that the stack of lamb ribs glazed with savory "Asian BBQ sauce" tastes just as good as China Grill's pricier version, and a Nobu-ish "blackened" wad of codfish, almost large enough for an entrée, is as effusively juicy as a fish can be, hugged with steamed bok choy and a gentle ginger, sake, and soy sauce. The menu, in other words, is humble, allowing diners to discover on their own as they eat, and with delight, just how virtuous the cuisine here really is.
Origin's menu does trumpet the origins of a few dishes, like the starter of "Vietnamese lobster ravioli": three steamed dumplings wrapped in thin rice paper, each delicately plumped with moist morsels of lobster meat and minced carrots, water chestnuts, and shiitake mushrooms, with eminently dippable nuoc nam sauce on the side. Crispy shrimp-laden spring rolls, and soft summer rolls of crab, tofu, and avocado in tandem with tamarind apricot dip, are meritorious as well.
So are raw fish options, from salmon or fluke carpaccios to scallop tartare with masago, capers, and chili-lime vinaigrette; to sashimi slices of tuna, yellowtail, and fluke; to boutique sushi rolls like smoked salmon with (hold your breath) onions, capers, cream cheese, papaya, avocado, jalapeños, and mint, and an oyster tempura roll with sweet peppers, pickled daikon, and wasabi saffron cream (yes!!!).
Salads maintain the momentum, thick wedges of ripe, coral-colored papaya encircling a nest of shredded green papaya aswirl in lime juice, nuoc nam, and crunchy bits of roasted peanuts. Papaya likewise frames a crisp heap of lettuces and fresh herbs beneath charred slices of rare filet mignon dressed in stimulatingly spicy chili soy sauce.
Prepping our palates with pickled, peppered, and piquant appetizers was just a perky prelude to praiseworthy entrées. Crispy whole snapper, impeccably fried, flakes into huge, white chunks of fish to be plunked into sweet and hot tamarind, garlic, and chili sauce. Half a dozen sea scallops, fat as doorknobs, get steamed in a banana-leaf boat lined with napa cabbage and moistened with a swell sauce of kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and mild red curried coconut -- with a basket of sticky rice on the side. Pan-roasted tofu steak was nicely crisped, but blandly seasoned; my sole reservation concerning Origin's cuisine is that many dishes could use more oomph.
Way one of "duck two ways": The leg meat, prepared in mock Peking fashion by having the Long Island ducks hang in the walk-in overnight, is slow-cooked, then wrapped into crispy spring rolls of fried wheat-flour skin. Way two: The crunchy-skin breast is pan-roasted, sliced, and fanned on the plate -- not rare or even medium rare, yet tender in its medium to well-done state, with soft wheat skins on the side for rolling the duck moo-shoo style. Dips come two ways too: tamarind and spicy mango.
Rolling things up at a restaurant can be fun. Cooking things yourself at a restaurant, on the other hand, has always seemed to me contrary to what you're there to do -- which is to have someone else work. So I'm afraid I didn't start out with much enthusiasm for the "hot stone" options, whereby you cook your own squid, shrimp, or filet mignon on a very hot rock. We chose the first, but the flame beneath the searing stone seemed to do a better job of burning the skin on our waiter's wrist as he attempted to place it on the table ("Yeow!" he said sharply but relatively quietly, all things considered) than it did cooking our calamari -- the hot rock was simply too small to accommodate more than two little slices of fish at a time. I am regrettably not yet Zen enough to sit idly and watch my squid slowly sizzle while those around me are consuming their steaming hot meals, chopstick by gluttonous chopstick. Small square dishes of steamed rice, chayote kim chee, and lemon grass and wasabi dips sided the stone, as did lettuce leaves for more wrapping and rolling, which, I suppose, were all supposed to add to the fun. As I said, I prefer to let the kitchen crew do their own cooking.
And cook they do, whether by steam, sauté, wok -- or a simple grilling, offered for New York sirloin steak, Cornish hen, jumbo shrimp, snapper fillet, and those jumbo sea scallops. Accompanying the grilled items are sticky rice, papaya salad, and a trio of dipping sauces (chili lime, chili vinaigrette, and soybean).
Service was consistently polite, sometimes attentive, sometimes not. During each visit the waitstaff slacked off considerably when it came to getting the check. On one occasion this neglect caused me to get to my car five minutes after the parking meter ran out. Luckily Origin is so reasonably priced (entrées $12 to $22) that even with the addition of an $18 ticket, dinner still came out to less than usual.
Lunch is really a steal. Specials such as chicken in red curry sauce, pad thai, and crispy monkfish are served with rice and salad or soup (go with the latter, and choose the chicken in spicy chili-lemon grass broth, with glass noodles and shiitake mushrooms) for just $6.95 to $8.95. For a dollar or two more you can get similar lunch items sided by four pieces of California sushi rolls, a shrimp dumpling, and two of the glazed lamb ribs -- also with rice and soup or salad.
A strange, rice puddingish, brûlée-less "crème brûlée" was regrettable; other desserts, excluding a scoop of green tea ice cream atop hot, fried banana-apple spring rolls, were forgettable. The rest of Origin's cuisine is anything but -- it is, in fact, a breath of fresh cooking on stale Washington Avenue.
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