Victor Srikusalanukul's first Richmond restaurant, Sumo San in the Bottom, pits clean, creative sushi against the grit of a post-punk joint that allows smoking at the bar and serves cheap draft beer on a stretch of Main Street that just dares businesses to succeed.
His second, Moshi Moshi, is uptown. In his new Carytown kitchen he takes sushi into realms of fusion that make it nearly unrecognizable. His panorama of deconstructed Asian dishes is so colorful and geometric, it seems more at home on a sculptor's pedestal than on a plate. And while he's not the first guy in town to bring cream cheese, heavy protein and Americanized deep-frying methodology to the flavors of the Pacific Rim, Victor's artistic range and potency earn attention.
The Lobster Rock Star is yellow curry with two (three on the night of my first visit, which hints at either the chef's generosity or the recent pace of business) half-pound lobster tails bathed in a light, sweet curry sauce with snow peas, mushrooms and peppers. This and the Miso Pretty lobster again, with spicy miso-wasabi pepper sauce round out the high-price mark at $28.
Appetizers such as deep-fried soft-shell crab with cilantro salsa and tartar filet mignon, and specialty rolls with names such as Tex Mex, Island and Lion Asia, can make it difficult to stop ordering when you're trying to sample a wide swath of a diverse menu. We did our best. Even so, having eaten at Sumo San, we found the final tab a shocker. Which leads me to ask, what could you get at Moshi Moshi if you came in thinking about your budget rather than your palate?
So on the next visit I spent my own money, not that of Style Weekly, which significantly alters a reviewer's perspective, shifting the emphasis from artistry to value. The answer was: You can get fed for $9 or $10 as long as you stick to chicken or tofu. The menu offers simple, starchier staples like ginger fried rice, grilled teriyaki and katsu, which come with Srikusalanukul's excellent veggie tempura. Then again, you have to work at not spending big, and it can end up feeling like you're missing out on the real fun.
The prices at Moshi Moshi make it a destination restaurant. It's a place to go when you're prizing craft over value. Like date night. But don't blame Srikusalanukul. You're not being overcharged. Respectable restaurants of all price levels try to achieve a "food cost" around 33 percent, which means menu prices are three times the cost of ingredients. This may seem excessive, but remember that food and drink sales have to cover much more than wholesale costs. Rent/mortgage, payroll, utilities and other expenses exist no matter how many patrons you have in the dining room. You can't survive with a food cost above 40 percent. It's just not profitable, and there's a limit to what people will pay.
Then there's Carytown overhead. The main floor features two fireplaces that provide an incongruous tavern feel. But if the décor flouts expectations for a Japanese bistro, it suits the extensive sake list. It's a good place to knock back some appetizers, a couple of rolls and a few drinks, and it might be getting even better: There's a front patio that raises hopes of outdoor seating, which remains in low supply on Cary Street.
In many ways, Carytown needed Moshi Moshi to replace what Indochine did so well back in the day Srikusalanukul's Indo-French stuffed chicken basil is the most obvious adaptation of that role. Here's what it tastes like: Think chicken cordon bleu, then imagine pad prik's basil and peppers. Make a stuffing of them and bind it with cream cheese and tempura/panko batter, bread and fry it. Serve with a fresh mango salsa and it's all fused and Americanized and delicious. It's also a chicken dish for which you'd gladly part with $18.
Owners of high-end establishments must justify their prices with the quality of the product. Srikusalanukul does. On each visit to Moshi Moshi, I've spied him smiling away in his kitchen. So you get these fresh, pricey ingredients in the gentle hands of a chef whose imagination proves equal to his knife skills and that's the value added in the equation. S
Moshi Moshi ($$$+)
3321 W. Cary St.
Lunch and dinner daily.
Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m.
Saturday: noon-11 p.m. Sunday: noon-9 p.m.
Wheelchair-accessible first floor.
Non-smoking during lunch and dinner service.