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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
Color in Fusion: Marinated Alaskan black cod and Orange Dragon rolls at Red Crane.

Flight Plan

Cupertino's Red Crane has yet to take off

By Stett Holbrook

SOMEWHERE between concept and reality, Cupertino's Red Crane restaurant loses its way.Sitting down to lunch on my first visit and looking up the menu, I was excited. Silicon Valley needs another contemporary Asian restaurant like it needs another Starbucks, but reading Red Crane's lineup of contemporary Japanese- and Chinese-inspired food made me hungry.

The menu of appetizers and small plates didn't appear to be just a mix of Western ingredients matched (or mismatched, as is often the case) with Asian preparation. Dishes like miso-marinated rack of lamb ($16), pan-roasted clams with yellow curry ($10), olive oil poached prawns ($10) and snow crab cakes ($12) seemed to reveal a kitchen that wasn't going for outlandish combinations, but rather subtle riffs on classic Asian dishes made with quiet sophistication.

Once the food arrived, however, I thought otherwise. While they sounded good on paper, too many dishes I tried were sloppy and inexpertly prepared, a sign that the kitchen couldn't pull off what they set out to do.

Take the miso-marinated rack of lamb. I thought the slightly sweet, salty flavor of miso could work as a marinade for lamb so I wanted to try it. What I got was a dish that had an unpleasant, overly gamey lamb flavor and little else. The miso was indistinguishable. Calling it a rack of lamb is misleading, too. Most of the dish consisted of thinly sliced, boneless pieces of meat fanned out on the plate. The two little rib bones sitting off to the side hardly adds up to a rack of lamb.

Then there were the Kona coffee–glazed ribs. The meat was so fall-off- the-bone tender that by the time they made it to the table some of it had already parted ways with the bone. They had so little flavor they tasted like they were boiled and then dabbed with the coffee-scented glaze on their way out of the kitchen as a last-second effort to try and gussy them up. It didn't work.

How about the crab cakes? Nope. The thickly crusted, heavily fried pucks concealed a goopy interior that reminded me of potato croquettes and had me straining to detect any crab flavor.

Desserts were mixed. The trio of panna cotta ($8) served in little shot glasses was creamy and rich and quite good. They were topped with a green tea syrup, sweet red beans and a slice of mandarin orange, respectively. The shaved ice "martini" ($6), however, was a glorified snow cone. The dessert is simply a pile of crushed, not shaved, ice served in a cocktail glass on top of more of those red beans and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You get a choice of too many fruit syrups to have squirted on top of the mound of ice. I went for the pomegranate and it was painfully sweet. If they're going to call it a martini maybe a shot of gin would have livened it up. Better yet scratch it, serve some green tea ice cream and call it a day.

While most of the dozen or so dishes I had over the course of two visits came up short, there were a few standouts that offered a glimpse of what the restaurant could be. Chinese chicken salad ($7) isn't going to wow anyone with its originality, but the lightly dressed Napa cabbage, julienned red bell peppers and mandarin orange slices with crispy strips of wonton was just fine. But why were the chunks of peanutty chicken all piled to one side?

The char sui Alaskan black cod ($14) was one of the best dishes I tried. Tinted a dark red from the Chinese-style marinade typically used with pork, the fish was succulent and rich and seemed to melt on contact with my mouth. If the exterior of the fish was crisped up a bit to contrast with the delicacy of the rest of the fish it would be even better.

The Asian fried chicken ($10) was good, too. The shatteringly crisp soy and garlic marinated chicken was juicy and flavorful.

Another winner is the Thai pan-roasted clams ladled with a coconut-milk-enhanced yellow curry that was so thick I could almost stand up my spoon in it. The clams were a bit small, but the curry was so good we ordered more of the roti, a savory and rich flat bread, to mop it all up.

Other dishes like the olive oil–poached shrimp and Red Crane sashimi platter ($15), carefully cut fish and a lone lobe of Kobe-style beef paired with dipping sauces served in a white soup spoon, were pretty good, too.

The restaurant occupies a storefront of a typically anonymous-looking minimall. Inside, the place is spare but comfortable, although on one visit the air conditioning was on so high I had to put on a jacket to stay warm. The heads of the chefs bob behind the high counter at the back of the restaurant, a sight that created a feeling of remoteness and disconnection. I wanted to see what they were doing.

And I want to see this place do well, too. Owners Royce Mori and Darren Ogasawara are clearly ambitious, as evidenced by the wide-ranging menu. They need greater attention to detail and more focus to bring their concept into reality.

The Red Crane

Address: 7335 Bollinger Road, Cupertino

Phone: 408.725.1990

Hours: Lunch 11:30am–2:30pm Mon–Fri, dinner 5:30–9pm Mon–Fri, 5–9pm Sat–Sun

Cuisine: Contemporary Asian

Price Range: Small plates $11–$16


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