Press, Awards, Recognitions

Serving Arizona
May 2003

CHEESE WHIZ VISITS RESTAURANT HAPA

His daughter calls him “The Stinky Cheese Man,” but Maître Fromager Max McCalman doesn’t seem to mind. His mission is to “spread the curd” about cheese and combat the bad health rap it’s been given. McCalman, the cheese whiz at Picholine and Artisanal in NYC, brought his message to Restaurant Hapa recently, partnering with new owner Margarita Lopez Walker, Exec Chef James McDevitt, Chef Graham Mitchell, and Chef Christopher Gross to present a five-course feast.

 


The sultry Walker
aroused appetites with her trio of rellenos, followed by McDevitt’s seabass and Gross’s braised shortribs, before McCalman introduced an array of pungent European cheeses that, it was agreed, had the room smelling like ‘feet’. Debonair new Hapa GM, David Torkko (formerly of the Wrigley Mansion
) and Paola Embry Gross collaborated on the evening’s wine pairings. McCalman autographed his book, “The Cheese Plate.”  


Sat., May 31: Margarita Lopez Walker, 26, the owner of Restaurant Hapa, looks stunning in a sequined top from Singapore and a silk skirt from India at Saturday's Taste of the Nation hunger-awareness benefit.

 


The beauty of this establishment is that two compelling visions coexist under the same roof, each amplifying the other. On one side, in a long, calm dining room anchored by an open kitchen, chef James McDevitt draws on his Japanese-American heritage to create Asian-fusion food, weaving greens, vegetables, and such local produce as pistachios and dates through his dishes.

He can even bring off notions that would scuttle a lesser chef: A beef tenderloin with a caramelized crust jumps with the sharpness of Chinese mustard. When miso-marinated sea bass arrives with fresh soybeans and curried artichoke relish, the question that comes to mind is not why but why not.

 

"Hapa" is Hawaiian slang for "half." This describes the Japanese-American background of chef-owner James McDevitt, who — along with wife Stacey — brings us American classics infused with Asian electricity.
   Asian fusion is everywhere these days, with one local place we know of even mixing French foie gras with Chinese five-spice — how weird is that? But Hapa knows when to exercise restraint, from its simple, refined decor to dynamite delicacies such as seared California squab with kabocha squash purée, Chinese broccoli and Thai basil oil, to New York steak dressed simply with caramelized Chinese mustard and served with Japanese sticky rice and Chinese long beans. For dessert? Sweet dim sum such as chocolate parchment pot stickers, and banana crème brûlée with toasted coconut. Both have us hapa to be alive.

Gourmet, October 2000
America's Best Restaurants 2000
Phoenix - Best Asian

On one side of this stylishly spare hot spot, chef-owner James McDevitt turns out luxioursly detailed Asian-fusion dishes that honor his Japnaese-American roots -- from crisped sweetbreads on garnet-hued ginger sauce to bronzy wood-roasted fish. On the other, his neo-sushi master, Nobu Fukuda, works with Iron Chef discipline to create multicourse sushi extravaganzas. Together, they make Hapa the most exciting place in town.

 Zagat restaurant guide:
"Exciting," "interesting" Asian-influenced Contemporary American fare served on "beautiful" Japanese-style plates, a minimalist, mirrored dining room and a new sushi bar and lounge with rattan furniture generate high scores and praise for James and Stacey McDevitt's "great little" Scottsdale spot; signature dishes include caramelized Chinese-mustard beef tenderloin and miso-marinated Chilean sea bass.

Bryan Miller, The New York Times, April 2000
"This two-year-old restaurant is one of the most inventive and exhilarating in Phoenix, and it is destined to enjoy a wider reputation."

Gourmet, April 2000
Phoenix Rising
Restaurant Hapa is more than a culinary mirage
by Alison Cook

Driving the vast expanse of Greater Phoenix can feel interminable unless you have something to obsess about. I had plenty, having just sampled the sushi of Nobu Fukuda - "the other Nobu," as I quickly came to think of him-who works the new sushi-lounge adjunct to chef James McDevitt's Restaurant Hapa. Together, they have turned it into the most compelling place in town.


It was a black January night, and the hotel was 30 miles away from the restaurant (somehow everything seems to be far apart here in Phoenix). But strip-mall corridors and Xeriscaped subdivisions slipped by painlessly as I rehashed the epic tasting menu dreamed up by Fukuda. By the time I revisited every last thrill - from Fukuda's Belon oyster, tamed by brief poaching and a jot of soy-tinged grape-seed oil, to the sumptuous Port-glazed eel layered with avocado and rice - I had climbed without noticing into a Martian desertscape of boulder-strewn foothills.

The guy's that good. Credit should go to the baby-faced McDevitt for being secure enough to install someone of Fukuda's gifts in the adjacent room. McDevitt can afford his self-confidence. Two years after opening Hapa (which is Hawaiian slang for half and alludes to the chefs Japanese-American heritage), McDevitt plays to mostly full houses.

His notion of Asian-American food is more soulful and unforced than most of its fusiony ilk. McDevitt's sauces ring with flavors: Witness the red curry in successive bongs of lemongrass and coconut, and the red-chile heat, which lift the bowl of skillet-roasted mussels out of the realm of cliché. He uses thickets of springy, sparingly dressed Asian greens to surround a crab cake with a lush green bonnet, for instance; or sets astringent tatsoi leaves against a raft of crisped sweetbreads on a gingery reduction the color of garnets.

Not everything of McDevitt's works. Occasionally he falls into the sweetness vortex, as with a "fiery squid salad" whose silken squidlets would be better served with more fire and less fruity papaya and lichee; or his caramelized Chinese-mustard tenderloin, too caramelized for its own good.

While his plates are gorgeous, they are not show-offy, and the quiet white table-tops in this long, putty-colored space are set with the angular Asian dinnerware that all the best-dressed restaurants feel a need for these days. Plump, perfect morsels of quail, shrimp, and chicken inhabit a compartmentalized tray with three sauces - vibrant peanut, hot chile, and red-curried coconut - looking for all the world like an aesthete's sate kit. Dramatically scored and burnished to bronze in the wood oven, a whole pomfret may emerge cooked just enough to take off its moist bloom. But underneath lies a trove of roasted vegetables, including a small turnip so irresistibly browned that I ate it long tail and all.

From such moments comes the happy, muted clamor that animates what would otherwise be a subdued dining room, all warm sepia tones and shadows. Its ornamentation is confined to a series of enormous mirrors framed in bamboo and hung just above eye level - a height that would trigger narcissistic meltdowns in New York or Los Angeles. The assembled Scottsdale burghers, young strivers, and rich snowbirds scarcely seem to notice.

Instead, they have the refreshing spectacle of McDevitt himself, who is not too grand to be seen working like crazy in the open kitchen. The staff follows his cue. Determined to oblige, they will tinker with the nightly four-course tasting menu to indulge a guest's whim, or dash from the next-door sushi lounge with wines by the glass from the unpredictable list, chosen for the tasting menu by resident wine buff Fukuda.

Fukuda's half of the Hapa universe connects to the restaurant proper through a large rear doorway. The moody, gray-green sushi domain is basically a ten-seat counter and a cluster of upholstered rattan chairs. It may take some time for McDevitt and Fukuda to fully work out the lounge's role; for now it is part bar, part holding area, part sushi counter, part full-bore restaurant. On a weeknight Fukuda, clad in faded jeans and white apron, pours wine for patrons awaiting their reservations and serves a sushi course or two to stray diners. When they clear out, he holds one thin-rimmed balloon glass after another up to the lamplight, trapping errant specks of dust with a soft, white cloth. He has yet to find a steady audience for the ten-course, seven-wine, neosushi extravaganzas that are his passion.

Maybe it's the $80 tariff that gives the locals pause, or the heroic scale of all those courses, or the unfamiliar notion of pairing sushi with wines. Given time, I'll bet Fukuda wins them over. He has a sure, vigorous palate, and a grasp of how to pace a complex, exciting meal. Even when I don't buy into his wine matches (is Brillecart-Salmon Champagne really suited to slices of albacore and bigeye tuna, ringed with soy onion salsa?), they make me think. One course later, the Champagne clicks with Fukuda's tuna tartare, which is buoyed with cucumber and apple, finished with pine nuts, and served upon a lacy lotus root.

Fukuda knows when to go for broke. He molds monkfish liver and avocado into a layered pâté that is unstintingly soft and rich; then he rims it with shiso-leaf oil, dots on balsamic vinegar reduced with soy, and crowns it with crunchy, Japanese mountain-broccoli buds that rescue the dish from over-voluptuousness.



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