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A Fine Line 

NOBLE ASIAN BISTRO's stabs at hip Asian cuisine are typical of the often hit-or-miss results of fusion cooking.

Like an haute-couture fashion show, fusion cooking at its best is a mind-bending, horizon-broadening explosion of creativity; at its worst it's a confusing amalgam of foods (or fabrics) that nature never intended to meld. Fusion cuisine is risky for both chef and diner because it lends itself to a pass/fail grading system. Fusion dishes, like catwalk outfits, rarely sort of work; when a diner doesn't fall madly in love with an unconventional combination, she's more likely to call it a failure than to chalk it up to a rough night in the kitchen. We've all had mediocre spaghetti and worn third-rate denim, after all, but who's ever heard of so-so foie gras tamales? Passable wild rice spring rolls? A middling Vera Wang? Chipotle chicken with essence of bee pollen is only as interesting on the plate as it is on the menu if it oozes excellence. Likewise, only a fraction of the stuff strutted down Parisian runways translates well to the street.

Noble Bistro might offer the best menu locally for tasting and testing the sort of neo-Asian fusion cooking that first evolved in California decades ago. Mexico and Japan taste like friendly neighbors in Noble's rendition of ceviche, a wonderful wet salad I could eat every day: chewy octopus, raw yellowtail, shrimp and shredded (unfortunately imitation) crab -- all zapped with ginger and the high-pitched citrus-tomato-cilantro trinity of a Mexican-style ceviche. Scallops topped with a blend of creamy mascarpone and sharp cheeses, and a smudge of smelt roe, are more embarrassing, like wearing an Elizabethan collar to the movies. It's a courageous dish, and the apricot-size scallops themselves are heavenly, but it's nothing the paparazzi needs to know about.

Chinese owner Frank Yeung, who also owns Sake Cafes in Kenner and Metairie, originally opened Noble Bistro as an upscale Japanese restaurant. With the talent of Thai Chef Winson Chinupakit, he converted to the fusion philosophy this June. While Chinupakit incorporates influences from New Orleans, France, Italy, Japan, China and Thailand, his predilection for ginger, lemongrass, soy, miso and cilantro threads a dominant Asian character through most dishes. Prepare for sugar, an ingredient used to excess, by asking the dutiful staff for a crisp wine from the short but well-chosen list, or cold sake flooded with the perfume of a cucumber spear.

Despite flops, like the mussels covered with indestructible twigs of fried lemon grass, ordering several "tasting plates (appetizers)" is the best way to eat here. Fabulously marbled carpaccio of ribeye steak is salty and smoky -- like prosciutto, only better because the tender meat and swirls of fat require little chewing; its ponzu sauce (a sharp, briny soy sauce mixture) tastes as natural as virgin olive oil, the traditional Italian accompaniment to beef carpaccio. Thick, deeply flavored corn soup, with its hint of yellow curry and "Chinese ravioli (wontons)," could make it as a signature dish in any hip restaurant. Thin crepes the size of coasters come wrapped around duck meat, Mandarin oranges and crushed Szechuan peppercorns, which infuse them with a floral heat. Boiled edamame (fresh soy beans) with coarse salt are better than a bowl of peanuts alongside Sapporo beer.

The entrees are more likely to encourage a close-minded skeptic of fusion cooking to dig in his heels -- when a combination doesn't click, there's more than a few bites to negotiate. Fried rice with yellow curry and pineapple is acceptable if sweet, and Thai-style Massaman curry potatoes are downright good, but what either is doing with a grilled veal chop is anyone's guess. A thin saffron sauce redolent of seafood stock and orange is fine for scallops, shrimp and mussels, although this dish's showpiece -- a whole baked lobster -- somehow turns dull, almost bitter, in its presence. The flavor of a long-awaited Kobe beef sirloin, for $35, was pure beefy butter, but unrelenting sinews lingered in the mouth like chewing gum long after the juices stopped flowing.

I can advocate the red snapper entree and its herbaceous Thai green coconut curry, and the black sticky rice served with crisp-skinned chicken breast is worth the entire dish.

Forget dessert unless it's ice cream. The cakes come half-frozen anyway and clearly are manufactured off-premises for restaurants with lower ambitions than Noble Bistro's.

Though I barely skimmed the sushi menu (for all its hazards, fusion cuisine is too exciting to let alone), I should mention that the restaurant's centerpiece is still a sushi bar with tall barstools and hanging lamps that look like glowing pomegranate seeds. Judging from the sashimi in a bento box lunch -- escolar whiter than the tablecloth; slick salmon that outwits chopsticks; a pristine California roll covered in smelt roe and sesame seeds -- the raw fish is a fair gamble.

The other rooms and the drinking bar carry off the sexy Asian aesthetic in which Pier 1 would have us all outfit our homes. The ceilings are black, the shiny lacquered bar is black, rough-glazed plates frame the food, split Noren curtains decorate the walls and Japanese screen dividers are all for show.

There's also a black grand piano on which, in the fashion-conscious spirit of fusion, someone plays jazz on the weekends.

click to enlarge The decor of NOBLE ASIAN BISTRO is as fashionable as its menu offerings, with a sushi bar underneath hanging lamps and rooms that would make Pier 1 proud. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The decor of NOBLE ASIAN BISTRO is as fashionable as its menu offerings, with a sushi bar underneath hanging lamps and rooms that would make Pier 1 proud.
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