Dining

Review: Japoix Restaurant & Lounge

Is this Capitol Hill eatery Japanese or French—or bit of both?

March 2011
Food:
Service:
Ambience:

975 Lincoln St., 303-861-2345, japoix.com

The Draw A creative menu that leans heavily on Asian preparations and ingredients.

The Drawback The menu’s French and Asian elements are not well integrated, and the noisy adjoining bar detracts from the dining space—especially later in the evening.

Don’t Miss Electric French Kiss cocktail, social hot rock, tempura rock shrimp, samurai sea bass.

Price $$$ (average entrée price $21)

In my freshman year of college, I decided I was going to be an actress. I enrolled in an acting class, spent long evenings posing and emoting in front of the bathroom mirror, and talked endlessly about the upcoming audition for Pygmalion. This was it, the new me, I could feel it. That was, until I realized I couldn’t act. I dropped my class after just one session, but the experience did teach me to be careful of making premature declarations.

This is the awkward spot Japoix Restaurant & Lounge now finds itself in. When it opened in the Beauvallon last summer in the space previously occupied by Nine75, the restaurant boasted about its Japanese-French cuisine. Even the name, pronounced ja-pwah, confidently communicates this East-meets-West intention. The problem is that while the cross-cultural intent is there, full integration is sorely lacking. Currently, the Asian overpowers the French, and the overall effect is one of cultural personality disorder.

The top of the menu, for example, advertises a list of sushi rolls. The list ranges from the all-too-common California roll, which arrived coated in stale rice, to the more original—although neither Japanese nor French—quinoa roll. Although I was assured this roll was a crowd favorite, and other diners at my table enjoyed it, I found the combination of rice mixed with quinoa to be bland.

Further culinary disconnect is found in a signature dish: the social hot rock. In this dish, a volcanic slab heated to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit arrives with strips of steak (you choose the cut), and a trio of sauces: ponzu, Dijonnaise, and French cognac reduction. The dish is fun and interactive, and all that seared meat lends a seductive steak house smell to the place—in fact, it’s the first thing you notice when you walk in the door. But the only nods to France come in the sauces and the paper cone of accompanying French fries.

Moving through the rest of the menu, I was hard-pressed to find much French at all in the small plates—although several are worthy of recommendation. The light and crispy tempura rock shrimp, for example, is a supremely satisfying dish that brings crunch and succulence together with a sweet-hot chile dipping sauce and tangy yuzu mayonnaise. The ahi poke, also a winner, combines tender chunks of ahi with a silky sesame-jalapeño vinaigrette. However, the dish would be even better without the overwhelming round of sticky rice. The deconstructed street tacos, an Asian knockoff that pays homage to the Korean taco truck trend, is also conceptually interesting. In the dish, marinated short rib slices come with a crunchy, sweet pear-onion relish and are eaten atop square won ton crisps. On its own, each element was well seasoned, but once combined the dish falls apart because there isn’t enough flavor to go around. This imbalance is evident in other dishes as well. The lobster udon, a soupy bowl that combines udon noodles, lobster, and snap peas inside a miso-butter broth, would be more successful without the daikon sprouts, which are overpowering with a radishy-onion taste. Similarly, the Asian pear flambé is doused with too much sake, and, on the night I ordered it, the half-roasted duck had been cooked to unbearable dryness that was only furthered by the even drier steamed buns.

Fortunately, not all dishes overreach and underdeliver. Among the more successful preparations on the entrée list are the duck ramen, served with thin egg noodles, crispy bits of confit-style pork belly, and tender roast duck in a warm and fragrant duck broth; the pan-seared samurai sea bass served with an elegant and creamy miso beurre blanc; and the salmon de extraordinaire, in which a generous salmon steak arrives nestled inside a hot coriander-mushroom broth. The earthiness of the mushroom broth was a unique and savory complement to the sweet salmon.

But still, after every meal I left Japoix scratching my head. Other than a few hints here and there, the menu was overwhelmingly Asian. Where were the promised French influences?

Chef Jay Spickelmier certainly has the credentials to pull off this culinary mash-up, having worked at both Jing Restaurant in Greenwood Village and Osaki Sushi in Vail (Asian), as well as the Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder and the Left Bank in Vail (French). When I asked Spickelmier about this disconnect, Japoix’s identity crisis became clear. “I don’t like labeling our food as French-Asian,” he explained. Really? Then why open under that guise? “I like to take from Japanese and French cuisine, but that’s not only what we’re about. We’re more worldly than that.”

So this made me wonder, would I have had a different experience at Japoix if my expectations had been different? My conclusion: No. The menu is bizarrely schizophrenic, and that division is echoed in the space itself. The combination of glitzy black lacquer and white tablecloths gives the restaurant a sexy urban-Asian feel. But the wall of uncovered street-facing windows lets in too much gray-green light from the street lamps, not to mention the buzz-killing view of the dry cleaner, pizza parlor, and sandwich shop across the street.

But the bigger problem comes from the large lounge area in the back of the restaurant. Where the restaurant aims for sophisticated urban-Asian, the bar is clearly going for the big-spending, vodka-swilling, sports bar crowd. This means that at a certain point each night, a different crowd of regulars starts to wander through the door, and the volume of the music rises to the point where conversation toward the back of the restaurant becomes difficult.

In the end, I’m torn about this place. Spickelmier has ambition, he knows technique and ingredients, and he’s comfortable with experimentation—much of it successful. But just as I was too quick to proclaim myself an actress, Japoix may have been too quick to boast of its intentions. With more time, and perhaps less improvisation, my hope is that the restaurant’s true persona will emerge.