Odd Couples: When Unlikely Cuisines Collide

By Kelly Dobkin  |  December 10, 2013

Combining two cuisines on one menu is not exactly groundbreaking - items like wasabi-mashed potatoes and California sushi rolls have been menu standards since the '90s. But there's a new kind of culinary collaboration going on in American restaurant kitchens - just don't call it fusion. More brash and absurd than fusion's first wave, this new crew of mash-up chefs are creating highly unlikely combinations, from Irish-Eritrean to Italian-Korean. 

We took a look at a few of these pioneering restaurants (and food trucks) who are playing by their own rules - creating menus that juxtapose two cuisines seamlessly. 

  • Piora, NYC

    Owner Simon Kim (Korean-American) and chef Chris Cipollone (Italian-American) both set out to open a modern American restaurant when they partnered up to open Piora in NYC’s West Village. But what they didn’t know upon teaming up was that both of their respective backgrounds would come into play in shaping their modern American vision. A trip to Korea with Kim influenced Cipollone’s direction with Piora. ”When Simon and I got to know each other, that was kind of when it happened. I never had any Korean influence at all. I never had any exposure to it,” says Cipollone. “The concept sounded very interesting. In America, Korean isn’t as prevalent or exposed as say Japanese or Chinese, especially on a fine-dining level.”

    Specific dishes here are less mish-mashy than some others in the genre - at Piora, the flavors are juxtaposed rather than forcibly combined. But you can see a subtle blending going on in plates like the Rohan duck, which is marinated in jujube (Korean date) and served with Italian farro and local carrots. “We’re not trying to push the issue with each dish, that’s just how it worked out,” says Cipollone.

  • Shalom Japan, Brooklyn, NY

    Brooklyn’s Shalom Japan was a literal labor of love for married culinary couple Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi. The menu subtly combines aspects of these seemingly unrelated cultures: think okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) with corned lamb's tongue and sauerkraut. (Sawako hails from Hiroshima, the ‘birthplace’ of okonomiyaki.) A traditional challah bread is infused with sake lees and served with raisin butter; the "lox bowl" contains basically all the ingredients for a spicy salmon sushi roll - but with cured fish. 

    Though the name seems completely original, it in fact isn't. “We were actually doing some research in the library about two summers ago, and we came across this old New York City guidebook from the '80s, and it featured a restaurant in SoHo called Shalom Japan," says Israel. "We just thought, that’s really funny and amazing. And we joked, 'If we ever open up a restaurant, we should call it that.'"

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Cheu Noodle Bar, Philadelphia

    Sometimes you don’t need an excuse (or a mixed-background relationship) to fuse flavors. At Philly’s Cheu Noodle Bar, childhood friends Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh are mixing Asian flavors with those of their surroundings and backgrounds. From scrapple to matzo balls, the duo will incorporate almost anything into their Asian-inspired fare. Authenticity is not part of their playbook. “What do we, two dudes from Philly, know about 'authentic' Asian cuisine? Nothing,” reads a manifesto on their website. “We cook what we like to eat - it’s personal, no matter what we put in front of you. Our food is often informed by tradition, but it’s never defined by it.”

    For the most part, the menu skews mostly Asian, but dishes like the fearlessly fusion-y brisket broth that combines chile with matzo ball, kimchi and egg noodles display the duo’s culinary rebellious streak.

  • Orsa & Winston, LA

    Chef Josef Centeno's (Lazy Ox Canteen, Baco Mercat) latest restaurant takes a refined approach to combining two unlikely cuisines - Italian and Japanese. Centeno is hardly a stranger to mash-ups - his Baco Mercat combines Middle Eastern, Mexican and Japanese flavors (just to name a few). But Orsa & Winston's Italian-Japanese omakase (either $50 or $195) pulls off some seemingly risky culinary maneuvers - coddled egg is served with sherry whipped cream and pancetta; artisanal koshihikari rice comes with uni and pecorino cream.

    There was no personal inspiration for the concept, it was more of an intellectual challenge, says Centeno. "I knew I wanted something distinct for the third restaurant, and I love ingredients from Italy and Japan. There's no single experience I draw from, but traveling and eating in Rome certainly resonated with me. And a lot of my fine-dining training as a chef working my way up included incorporating Japanese ingredients and techniques. I felt that combining the robust flavor of Italian cooking and the delicate and clean sensibilities of Japanese cuisine was the heart and soul I wanted for the restaurant."

  • Belly Shack, Chicago

    Bill Kim can probably be credited with bringing hipster Asian food to Chicago with his first restaurant UrbanBelly back in 2008. His second place, Belly Shack, pulls from the dual inspiration of Kim’s Korean background and his wife’s Puerto Rican heritage. While Asian-Latin fusion concepts have been commonplace for years, the specific combo of Korean and Nuevo Latino is one that hasn’t been as well trodden. The concept was inspired partially by a trip Kim and his wife took to China. “We had these mutton chops at a Hunanese restaurant," Kim tells us. "The mutton chops had cumin all over them. And I was like, 'This is so weird that I’m in China and they’re using so much cumin,' and that gave me a lightbulb.”

    At Belly Shack, some flavors stay separate while others are brazenly combined. Dishes like the Boricua (marinated tofu, hoisin BBQ sauce and brown rice served on a crispy plantain) and the somen noodle salad (with shrimp, tortilla, tomatillo and jicama) are where the cuisines boldly collide.

  • Eire Trea, San Francisco

    We've saved the most unusual mash-up cuisine of all - Irish and Eritrean - for last. The concept for the San Francisco Eire Trea food truck was formed when Galway native Alan Hyland was trying to get an Irish food truck going. His neighbor, who happened to be Eritrean, was also looking to start up a food truck serving his native cuisine. So the duo pooled resources, and the concept was born. The cuisines stay mostly separate on the menu, though there is some overlap, like the Tibs Wat sandwich - beef tips bathed in spicy berbere sauce on Irish soda bread - or the Yebeg alecha and cabbage - a variation on corned beef and cabbage substituting buttered lamb for corned beef.