Dining » Cafe

Hold the Moustache: Fumanchu, the prodigious Mike Johnson's latest offering, is all over the Asian map



Is Mike Johnson the hardest-working man in the St. Louis restaurant business? Well, consider this: Fumanchu, the chef-restaurateur's new spot in downtown Maplewood — where he has already established Boogaloo and El Scorcho — is not quite three months old, yet he has already opened another restaurant, Bici Café, in University City. If he started another venture or two in the week between me writing this and you reading it?

Wouldn't surprise me.

Over the course of his career, Johnson has tackled a wide range of cuisines: Spanish tapas, Greek mezes, Cajun and Creole, Mexican and Tex-Mex. One consistent recent theme, though, has been a predilection for combining casual menus dominated by small plates with themed cocktails and a convivial, if not raucous, atmosphere. And so it goes at Fumanchu. Here you will find mainstream twists on Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai cuisine, along with a cocktail menu heavy on sake-tinis and the like — including a drink brilliantly named the "Buttery Nepal" — in a space that feels less like a restaurant than like a really big bar that happens to offer table service.

The restaurant's name, of course, refers to Fu Manchu, a fictional character created by the novelist Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu is a criminal mastermind, and the long moustache that was the signature of his celluloid incarnations still bears his name today. The character is also a lightning rod for controversy, as critics contend that he's based on racial stereotypes.

It's a provocative name for a restaurant, whatever your opinion of Fu Manchu, the character. (I've never read a book or seen a movie that features him.) Johnson is smart enough to know this. In fact, his last venture bore a similar hallmark. El Scorcho took a kitschy approach to Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine with its own name and its menu, which features dishes like "pulled porko" and "maco & cheeso." The conceit — many Spanish words end with vowels! — aside, the food was unmemorable.

The food is much better at Fumanchu. And while there is kitsch — namely, a large-screen TV showing an endless loop of old kung fu flicks — for the most part the décor is Chinese or "Asian" in a very generic way. The dominant color is red, and the most striking feature is a large ceiling fan with twin blades that resemble a boat's propellers.

As I noted, the place feels more like a bar than a restaurant. The seating forms an L shape around the long bar counter, with cushy booths along the wall and high tables in front of the kung fu TV. There are a few tables beyond the bar, and there's a patio deck behind the restaurant. Smoking is permitted and, if you happen to be sitting at one of the booths near the bar, quite noticeable.

The menu features mostly small dishes, including sushi rolls, and your best bet is to build a meal out of several of these. There aren't any entrées, per se, though you can create a bowl of rice or noodles with the meat (or tofu) and sauce of your choosing.

Most of the small dishes are grouped on the menu as appetizers. The term is apt, despite the lack of main courses, because most are variations on typical appetizer fare: potstickers, calamari, dumplings — even guacamole. The "Asian" take on guacamole features miso as well as avocado, and it's garnished with green onions and served with fried won tons for dipping. That said, it resembles traditional guacamole in appearance, texture and flavor. And honestly, I liked it better than the guacamole I've had at many Mexican restaurants in town. The flavor had an especially verdant tang.

Potstickers are filled with shiitake mushrooms and leeks rather than ground pork. I liked the contrast in textures, but without its accompanying three-chili dipping sauce, the flavor was dull. On the other hand, while I liked the "Crispy Peking Duck Rolls," the orange-soy reduction on which these rolls sat was too funky. The rolls are essentially egg rolls full of tender shredded duck meat. (Though I'd bet the filling doesn't come from genuine Peking duck.) I didn't taste much orange in the orange-soy reduction; in fact, the thick dark sauce was more like the nuoc mam-spiked peanut sauce some Vietnamese restaurants serve alongside their spring rolls.

My favorite dishes were the tempura asparagus and the Korean barbecue pork ribs. The former, as with all good tempura, was a testament to simplicity: medium-thick asparagus spears lightly battered and fried to an ideal crispness. On the side was a dish of ponzu sauce, a light, slightly tart, amber concoction. The ribs, served four to an order, were very tender and bore a touch of heat that was the perfect contrast to the sweet and savory meat.

"Sweet and Spicy Thai Calamari" promised that same contrast, but I found the squid too tame, though the meat was tender and the breading crisp. The green-curry aioli atop an order of sweet-potato fries was very spicy, but the fries themselves were wimpy.

Only a few dishes missed the mark entirely. Coconut shrimp with a "Korean" cocktail sauce were like something from an Applebee's test kitchen. The coconut batter was too thick, and the shrimp were bland. As for the sauce, I don't know whether Koreans make cocktail sauce, but this tasted like Heinz 57 spiked with sriracha. Pork dumplings were either poorly constructed or left in the steamer too long: No matter how delicately we tried to remove them from their basket, the skins tore to pieces, and the meat inside was overcooked.

The sushi selection is limited to rolls. There are familiar American varieties (Philadelphia, California) as well as a few originals. I'm not a big fan of sushi rolls, but I have to say the "Fumanchu" was tasty. The roll featured spicy tuna, snow crab and smoked salmon, but what gave it zip was an atypical (for sushi) combination of smoky hoisin sauce and wasabi aioli that had been drizzled on top.

The beer and wine selections are rudimentary, with the former featuring several common Asian brews. If nothing else, I think this is the first restaurant where I've seen Kirin on tap. (Not that I pine after Kirin.) Among the signature sake cocktails, the Ryland Island is especially delicious: a mix of sake with a little simple syrup and fresh lime juice. And of course there is that Buttery Nepal, crafted from butterscotch schnapps, Irish cream and Absolut Vanilia. Order it with a straight face, if you can.

A server described the Ryland Island as akin to an Asian mojito. Inelegantly put, perhaps, but not untrue. Oddly, that cocktail might be the most inventive item served at Fumanchu. For the most part, the place offers well-executed variations on long-familiar fare. Unless you are an absolute newcomer to Asian cuisine, nothing here will take you anywhere you haven't been before.

As a concept, though, Fumanchu's impressive: The food is a good value — most dishes are priced under $10 — the vibe is laid-back and the servers are attractive. If I were a businessman looking for a template to replicate, I'd take note.

It'd need a really great name, though. Something to give it an edge, maybe even something a teensy bit politically incorrect.

Ideas, anyone?

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