On Food

CreAsian Mythology

This article appeared in the March 9, 2001, issue of the East Bay Express.
Deep in the wilds of San Leandro, gourmet Asian fusion cuisine with quirky service.

1269 MacArthur Boulevard, San Leandro

By Eve Kushner

Sedate San Leandro is hiding one of the hottest new spots for fusion food. I say “hiding” partly because it took Arif and me 25 minutes to locate CreAsian after exiting 580 at Dutton/Estudillo and then grappling with sketchy directions. We wove in and out of San Leandro’s residential districts (which, admittedly, we’d never taken the time to see before), figuring we’d have to hit MacArthur if we zigzagged back and forth long enough. We even searched on the east side of 580 and, after ending up at a regional park, nearly called it quits. Then, serendipitously, we found ourselves right where we should have been all along—at the base of the freeway, only blocks from the exit, in an unpromising commercial strip.

We were ten minutes late, and we just knew the staff had given away our reservation. But lo and behold: they hadn’t, and a server escorted us to our table with the biggest smile west of 580. We were lucky, because there’s often at least one party waiting to be seated at this 46-seat restaurant. CreAsian opened in September, and obviously the word has spread.

canola fields near Tengchong, China
Credit: Peter Brouwer
Near Tengchong, China, there are canola fields as far as you can see. This will all become cooking oil.

We pored over the oddly arranged menu, unsure of how to approach the meal. Some of the Chinese offerings on the right-hand side (such as Shanghai chicken with pine nuts and snow peas) have tapas prices: $3.95 to $8.95. But many others cost $12.95, which would make it expensive to try several at one sitting. The left-hand side features chef Jack Lew’s transcendent gourmet fare in the form of “teasers” ($7.95 to $9.95) and “main event” dishes ($16.95 to $19.95).

Complicating our decision further, the 43 items all sounded terrific. People around us oohed and ahhed while reading the menu, craning their necks to see tempting food as it arrived on adjacent tables. Faced with such mouthwatering choices as mango prawns or seared duck breasts with five-spice duck-leg confit in a cranberry sake reduction, we had trouble limiting ourselves to a few dishes.

Ordering clued us in about the occasional quirkiness of the service. After hearing our selection, the server began trotting off to the kitchen. But we stopped her, asking for a beverage menu. Our request seemed unusual, because she needed help from another server, who produced the list after some confusion. Craving a pot of loose genmaicha—Japanese tea—I was crushed to see that the tea choices were limited to Tazo teabags, which might work for movie theaters but doesn’t do justice to a fine Asian meal. I settled for “Zen” tea, a terrible substitute that put me in a most un-Zenlike state. Providing loose teas would be a simple and enormous improvement for CreAsian. Fortunately for Arif, the small wine list sufficed, and he liked what he got.

Given the restaurant’s leisurely pace, after ordering we had time to observe the decor. With bold oranges and reds, owners Jack Lew and Judy Yu have transformed a pizza place into a high-concept venue. On one wall, a crazy quilt of mirrors and lights sheathed in red plastic catches the eye immediately. The “quilt” panels tilt inward and outward for a wild, futuristic effect. A soft banquette upholstered with tiny Chinese characters runs the length of the intimate dining area, and a curvy counter separates the exhibition kitchen from diners. At the entrance, the owners have cleverly blocked any wind with curtains attached to a labyrinthine metallic screen. These striking visuals make the place come alive, contrasting sharply with the restaurant’s suburban surroundings.

CreAsian tends to be loud—not so much that you can’t chat easily but enough that you can’t quite discern the type of music playing. At least that’s true until about 9 p.m., when the restaurant suddenly empties, apparently not being much of a late-night draw for locals. Some tables feel squished together, which adds to the din.

Unprompted, our server pushed two tables together for us because we had ordered several dishes, and having extra space made the whole experience feel like that much more of a treat. Then the incredible food arrived—and it lived up to the big buildup.

I should have heeded the chili-shaped warning symbol next to the chili salt calamari ($6.95) on the menu. We had requested a mild version, but the chili-flecked batter on the delicately cut, fried rings overpowered me. The calamari came garnished with rice noodles and chili peppers, all of which sat in a strong sauce. Arif savored this appetizer, and I appreciated it in theory but had to abstain after a few sincere efforts.

The crockery is lovely, by the way, with geometric designs around the rim. Plates for various “main-event” dishes have different shapes. Nice touch.

Panels on gate of Taoist temple in Tengchong, China
Credit: Peter Brouwer
Panels on gate of Taoist temple in Tengchong, China.

Duck-liver-sausage fried rice with pine nuts and taro root ($8.95) proved to be robust and thoroughly satisfying. Our hefty portion featured smoky red sausage cut into small cubes, along with toasted pine nuts and bits of scrambled egg, all mixed into fluffy and not-at-all greasy rice. Our dish caught the eye of another diner, who stopped the server to ask, “Now what is that?!”

Scallops in black-bean sauce ($12.95) featured a dozen sweet scallops in a cloudy sauce resembling egg-drop soup. Crunchy green beans flanked the seafood, and the whole affair tasted so yummy that Arif later deemed this his favorite dish.

Our only selection from the gourmet side, the black-and-white sesame salmon ($16.95), was a marvel to behold, as are all the main-event dishes, most of which are presented in gravity-defying formations. (The massive bone of a lamb shank stands upright, and the surf and turf comes piled high like an ice-cream cone.) Our thick cut of salmon was dazzling. Black sesame seeds encrusted one half, while white sesame seeds covered the other. Accompanying yam-noodle bundles charmed us further; the bunches of translucent strands lay in such neat bows that it seemed as if the chef had worked with something as tractable as yarn.

But the dish had far more to offer than beauty. The perfectly cooked, moist salmon remained flavorful and interesting from beginning to end. The firm yam noodles grabbed my attention both for their texture and their fascinating taste, and crisp green beans rounded out the picture. But the wasabi sauce underneath all these goodies surprised us most of all. I initially avoided the pistachio-green concoction, as I dislike the harsh zing of wasabi, but Arif aptly noted that it tasted like coconut milk. Indeed, the sauce offered an intriguing sweetness without the gloppiness that sometimes encumbers coconut-milk dishes. And even though Arif usually finds coconut milk too sweet, that wasn’t the case here, possibly because the wasabi balanced the flavors.

We couldn’t finish all the dishes but indulged in dessert anyway, having coveted the lava cakes that arrived on our neighbors’ table. In fact, we had observed those chocolate desserts closely enough to notice that one featured a pool of chocolate on top and inside, whereas the other looked devoid of “lava.” We hoped for the best, but ala—ours had no liquid either. Although the cake itself was quite good—hot and moist with a soufflé-like texture—we felt somewhat deprived.

We also struggled to obtain coffee, which is only available at dinner. Feeling puzzled by this rule and a little sorry for lunch guests, we ordered some but learned (with an embarrassed giggle from the server) that they were clean out of coffee. Even decaf? “I’ll see,” she said with more giggles, soon producing one almost-full cup along with an empty one for splitting purposes. As these were the dregs, the coffee was on the house. Good thing, because we found it undrinkable.

It took a fair amount of persuading to get our skeptical friends Tai and Marit down to San Leandro the following weekend. They dug in their heels for a while, relenting only when I showed them CreAsian’s menu. Then they immediately cleared their schedules, and I knew they wouldn’t be sorry.

We couldn’t figure out how many plates to order for four, but we did well that night to select mainly from the left side of the menu. There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant’s Chinese dishes, but if you’ve come a long way to reach the place, you might as well go for the more innovative offerings.

Our first teaser, duck wrapped in spinach crepes ($7.95), should have been called “duck loosely covered with spinach tortillas.” Two thick wrappers curled conically around a cold mixture of sliced duck, crunchy bean sprouts, red onion, and cilantro, but the tortillas had no adhesive qualities and immediately flew open when I cut them in half. I butchered them so badly that no one allowed me to do any more divvying for a while. The ensemble still tasted good in a tostada formation, and it really was fork-and-knife food anyhow, with a hoisin sauce for dipping.

The salmon spring rolls ($7.95) held together much better under a knife. In fact, the crispy, deep-fried skin seemed rather thick for spring rolls, which made them all the more scrumptious. And the mixture of smoky salmon, crunchy papaya strands, and pea sprouts complemented the sturdy wonton wonderfully.

Four large squares of lobster ravioli ($7.95) sprinkled with translucent orange fish eggs swam in a pool of wasabi sauce, which had more of a wasabi kick than the previous night’s, but only slightly; the coconut-milk flavor still predominated. Three of us loved the sweet sauce, but Marit found it cloying and regretted having scooped so much onto her plate. Although we thought we liked the ravioli, we couldn’t quite discern its flavors, what with the overwhelming sauce.

We learned that they were clean out of coffee. Even decaf? “I’ll see,” said our server with a giggle. We found it undrinkable.

They’re right to call these teasers,” commented Marit, who was left wanting more. Our appetites whetted, we did feel teased, especially because the main courses were slow to appear.

When two large cuts of seared ahi tuna arrived in a slightly offset stack, Tai exclaimed, “This is art!” and Marit wished she had brought a camera. “It’s like a steak,” said Tai. Indeed, the sashimi-grade fish was bright red everywhere but on the darkened crust.

The fish itself didn’t have a marked flavor, only a reassuring tenderness. Instead, the orange curry sauce stole the show. We’ve all had our share of curries, but this was like no other. Light and clear, it surpassed our expectations of what a curry could be and provided a brilliant match for the ahi. Tai and Arif concurred that they would never have come up with such a pairing, though it now seemed perfect and obvious. We spooned up the sauce, along with tiny potato cubes, until everything on the plate disappeared.

From the Chinese menu, sunflower beef with enoki mushrooms ($9.95) featured tender, stir-fried meat in a flavorful sauce, along with enokis that radiated outward like the rays of the sun in a child’s drawing. A generous sprinkling of sunflower seeds hooked me, and I nipped into the portions that Tai and Marit had not yet claimed. Even so, the dish was not as special as the other fare we’d devoured. I nibbled away mainly because it turned out we hadn’t ordered enough food.

We made up for that with four desserts ($4.95 each). Three of Marit’s all-time favorites appeared on the list, so we had to sample those. Plus, we wanted to try our luck again with the lava cakes.

Tiramisu was the only slightly disappointing pick. It tasted fine, but it wasn’t actually a tiramisu at all. Instead, the striated dessert hinted at an orange flavor. The lava cake more than made up for our deprivation the week before. The warm, melty chocolate seeped into the crevices of the cake and launched all of us into chocolate heaven. We reveled further as we tucked into the triple mousse cake, layered with white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. And all of us found the wild berry cheesecake fabulous—even Arif and I, who aren’t cheesecake fans.

The one low point to dessert was that, again, we had problems obtaining coffee. We ordered three decafs, and when the server produced them, she said she would only charge us for two, as these were the last in the pot. Arif, who is quite particular about coffee, thought it tasted fine, but Marit had heard more than she wanted to know and struggled against a mental block. Along with the tea, then, the coffee supply could stand some improvement.

So could the service. We had to request a change of silverware between teasers and main events, and even then we lacked some vital instruments and had to snitch them from another table. I stopped hoping that someone would mop up spilled food, and I wiped the table with my napkin before dessert. Generally, while the servers seemed overwhelmed by the full house, they couldn’t have been more cheerful or earnest.

Those who avoid meat and seafood should be forewarned; at CreAsian, they’ll only be able to choose from among six Chinese dishes, half of which are spicy, and five of which are garlicky. For omnivores, I definitely recommend dining in a tapas mode, as it would be a shame not to do so with such a big, appealing menu. Just make sure to order enough—and expect to pay quite a bit. Last but not least, go straight when you exit 580 South. Don’t turn right, and don’t cross under the freeway.