Back from almost a month in Asia and already missing the exotic flavors of Singapore, Manila, Borocay and the islands, I was delighted to learn that a "stunning" Euro-Japanese restaurant in Stamford awaited my review. How lucky can you get? The name of the restaurant, Duo, defines the concept. Call it a gimmick but it works and it's wonderful: Appetizers, entrées and even complex sushi rolls are presented as compositions featuring one main ingredient prepared two entirely different ways.
For example, tartare of tuna with sushi rice in a red wine reduction is served alongside a fresh albacore white tuna pizza with sun-dried tomato salsa and basil balsamic drizzle. The "pizza," a happy surprise, more like a napoleon and light enough to float away, is indicative of things to come. Duo's menu is a compendium of the unexpected.
The pleasure begins with a long sushi bar where three chefs work with a dazzling array of sparklingly fresh ingredients, some familiar, some less so, to create not only the standard offerings but inventive creations of their own. A tray of three dips, plain soy, spicy remoulade and soy with wasabi, accompanies all sushi dishes. We liked them all. (My favorite, if you must know: the spicy remoulade.)
A lobster appetizer turns out to be two soups, an American-style bisque and a celery-root-infused lobster cappuccino that demonstrates the chef's virtuosity and expertise with foams.
Seasonings range from mild to hot enough to make your lips prickle. Sparklingly fresh sashimi of hamachi with jalapeño and yuzu soy sauce is a case in point. To cool things off a bit, pan-seared hamachi with mango salsa and apple balsamic reduction lies benignly alongside.
Even the simplest appetizers are served two ways. Edamame, for example, comes steamed and in a salad. My favorite appetizer, billed simply as "Duck," turns out to be elaborate and filling enough to serve as a main course. Exotically spiced Peking duck with honey-soy glaze served over rice shares a plate with roasted duck breast with potato confit laved with intensely flavorful duck jus.
Crispy, ethereally light shrimp tempura and its companion piece, rock shrimp on a skewer, the former covered with bottarga aioli, the latter awash with wasabi emulsion, packs a powerful punch and elicits exclamations of delight from the fire-eaters at our table.
A first act like this is hard to follow but Duo surpasses itself with imaginative entrées like Chilean sea bass prepared two distinctly different ways, one fillet fava bean-encrusted and applewood-smoked, the other miso-glazed with tamarind vanilla sauce. Even a menu staple like fillet of salmon manages to be interesting, with a garnish of roasted sweet corn salsa and companion piece of smoked salmon terrine topped with a jumbo prawn.
Heading the entrée list is a vegetarian pot au feu and two green tea pastas, but Asian food is noted for pleasing light eaters and I want to know whether a ravenous carnivore would be happy here. The answer is yes. An order of beef brings forth a thick, juicy, oven-roasted natural beef tenderloin, precisely medium-rare as ordered, plus a fork-tender chunk of beef shoulder slowly braised until it was infused through and through with a rich dark sauce heady with what tastes like all the herbs and spices of the Orient. Our waiter tells me it takes three days to make.
Popcorn-crusted duck with thyme cassis reduction paired with duck ravioli is equally satisfying-and pretty as a picture, with the fluffy white kernels of popped corn floating cloudlike atop the wine-dark dish.
As innovative as the food at Duo is, it takes its inspiration from authentic Japanese cuisine. It works. It fits. As a result, one gets no sense of disorientation. Only when it comes to dessert does tradition fly out the window. Duo gets the message: Americans adore rich desserts. Duo complies-with finesse. The warm chocolate cake is exquisitely intense, a perfect, fresh-baked little cake with totally liquid chocolate sauce inside ready to pour out at the prick of a fork. In keeping with the Duo theme, it's accompanied by a dollop of chocolate hazelnut mousse. Green tea mousse served with green tea crème brûlée is refreshing, but the darling of the day is the dessert special-strawberry soufflé, hot from the oven, served with a side of strawberry sorbet.
Our servers are warm and friendly and with one exception competent. (Three entrées were served before the beef entrée was ready, but that may have been the kitchen's fault.)
"Stunning" is a word I rarely use because few things really are. But when it comes to Duo, the dictionary definition is right on: "strikingly impressive, especially in beauty." Calm and confident in white, black and silver, every detail is in flawlessly good taste. Snow-white china in unusual shapes demonstrates the visual pleasure derived when form follows function, and even the bathrooms are an architectural triumph.
In short: At Duo, East meets West and both are best.
25 Bank St., Stamford (203/252-2233)
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 3, Saturday 12:30 to 3. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $7 to $14, entrées $16 to $30, desserts $3 to $10.Duo, Stamford