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Fusion Confusion Dispelled

Just Think of the Cuisine at Corona del Mar's Oysters as 'Asian-Influenced,' and You've Got an Accurate Picture


Too often, fusion cuisine is just confused. So you can understand why Cary Redfearn, manager of Oysters in Corona del Mar, prefers to describe his restaurant's menu as "Asian-influenced California cuisine."

As far as I'm concerned, Redfearn and his chef, Scott Brandon, can call their food anything they want, just as long as they keep serving it. Brandon composes dishes of artful complexity that don't veer into excess or garishness. His best offerings are truly delightful, and even the odd dish that doesn't quite work is still interesting.

The Cal-Asian idea suggests a certain kind of minimalist decor, but the exterior looks like a designer lapel pin: warm red brick with an electric-blue neon sign.

And the interior is a cross between Chicago speak-easy and French bistro. You walk past a grand piano that anchors jazz trios on weekends toward a lovely 92-year-old bar that originally belonged to Chicago's legendary Pump Room.

The main part of the restaurant is L-shaped, and although the front room can be noisy, the decibel level drops considerably around the corner. There's also a quieter back room. Oysters has a warm, lived-in feeling you don't find too often on Pacific Coast Highway (the place has been around since 1989).

As you'd expect, oysters feature prominently on the menu, and the $15 oyster sampler is a good value. Oyster lovers have as florid a technical vocabulary as wine connoisseurs (you'll get a hint of this from the menu); suffice it to say, whatever breed of mollusk you fancy, you'll find it fresh enough to stand on its own. Both the accompanying shallot vinaigrette and cocktail sauce are mild and enhance the flavor appropriately.

A favorite appetizer here is the grilled artichoke, which comes with a tarragon-laced sambal aioli. It's basic but satisfying. My favorite, though, is the ahi sashimi, which pits a crust of five peppers against a sweet soy glaze to excellent effect.

Also notable are the Hawaiian ahi and avocado spring rolls, encased in a papery crust and served with a nicely balanced ponzu sauce. The potato-wrapped crab cakes are enjoyable, as long as you drop any preexisting notions about the nature of a crab cake--the crab is a bit lost under a haystack of shredded potato; the fun is in the shallot-spiked munchiness.

There's nothing particularly unusual about the fried panko prawns, served with a feisty Chinese mustard and sweet and sour sauce, but I loved them because of the contrast between the light, crisp breading and the juiciness of the prawns.

Watch out if you order the kung pao calamari. Though the oyster sauce is heavy and slightly domineering, the fried calamari rings hold their crunch and the result is seductive. The portion is huge, and I kept eating despite repeated resolutions to save room. The heirloom tomato salad is gorgeous but, on my visit, came overly chilled, which muted the flavor of the tomatoes.

It's in the entree department that Brandon's creativity really shines. He has a fine way of layering flavors as well as textures without compromising either, and the presentations are often ravishing to the eye without being over the top.

A prime example of the kitchen at its best is sesame seared Hawaiian ahi: beautifully charred slabs of rare ahi resting on a thin puddle of wasabi beurre blanc surrounding a discus of jasmine rice. It's topped with deep-fried opal basil, which provides a pleasant bitter, chewy note. The dish is one of the best things on the menu.

Now let's revisit that F-word. On paper, the Near East paella sounds like fusion at its riskiest; saffron rice tossed with mussels, prawns, calamari and thin wisps of Chinese sausage, then simmered in a lemongrass-ginger broth and doused with roasted pepper relish. It turns out to be fusion comfort food, soupy at the bottom, nicely balanced, and the shellfish form an attractive bouquet.

Also delectable are the baked stuffed prawns--butterflied prawns packed with crab meat and liberally bathed in a pungent curry sauce, and the oak-grilled Hawaiian swordfish, marinated in honey and soy-ginger.

The seared diver scallops are highly recommended by the wait staff, but to me they were a disappointment. I suppose the idea is to set up a contrast between the sweetness of the scallops with a sake and tobiko caviar sauce, but the result is a slightly briny, one-note dish.

The only other dish I found lacking was the lemongrass-skewered Alaskan halibut; the fish was a bit dry and to me the ginger beurre blanc was cloying. It did, however, come with a tasty wasabi-potato puree.

Side dishes at Oysters are worth noting; across the board, they're given the same flair as the entrees. There are some excellent baby organic vegetables, and such touches as wasabi panko fries, which come with the excellent seared filet mignon, provide the guilty pleasure of junky finger food, but with a gourmet twist.

For dessert, the fallen chocolate and banana souffle is a must.

Oysters is expensive. Appetizers $7-$13. Entrees: $22-$29. Extensive late-night menu.


Oysters, 2515 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. (949) 675-7411. Dinner 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 5-10:30 p.m. Thurs-Sat., 4-9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Major credit cards.

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