Snorkeling recently off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, we found a large conch hidden in the seaweed. The ship's mate broke it open, slicing its fresh meat into tender, paper-thin morsels, "cooking" them in a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Our kids intently watched the entire process and were the first to taste a bit of the delicacy.
The fresh, tender, briny meat reminded us of our recent dinner at Beluga, where our friendly, efficient waiter had noted our kids' adventurous palates. We started by sharing a bowl of Steamed Edamame ($6), bright green soy pods sparkling with sea salt, and an order of Coconut-Crusted Calamari ($9).
The edamame kept shedding a hard, plastic-y inner shell when popped open, which was a nuisance, but the beans themselves were excellent. The squid was cut into strips instead of rings and was tender, crisp and not at all greasy. It was served with a slightly sweet cocktail sauce. These did not last long.
We also shared a bowl of Lobster Bisque ($8), a Miso Soup ($3) and Seaweed Salad ($7). We loved the textural contrast among the bisque's various elements -- the creamy soup studded with chunks of melt-in-your-mouth lobster and crunchy croutons. The steaming miso soup was richer than most, and the seaweed salad, which included bits of tomato and cucumber, was appealingly briny and slightly acidic; my wife commented that she could just eat it all day. It was refreshing and enticing -- a perfect appetizer.
Moving on to heartier fare, my kids chose sushi rolls from the extensive menu.
My daughter chose a tempura-battered Volcano Roll ($13), a crazy conglomeration that included tuna, salmon, red snapper, BBQ unagi (eel), crab, asparagus and even cream cheese, which added a terrific creamy counterpoint to the light crunch of the tempura batter. A slightly spicy drizzle of "lava" topped the roll, making it somewhat hotter than my daughter would have preferred, but we just scraped it off and she scarfed down each delicious bite.
I went with the Togarashi Ahi Tuna ($24), perfectly seared slices of rare, pink tuna served over a spicy dressing of tomato and wasabi. Seared tuna might be common these days, but this version goes the extra mile, balancing contrasting flavors and textures -- cool tuna with spicy sauce; tender fish with a crunchy sheet of tempura-battered seaweed; the main dish balanced by "sides" of rice, avocado, asparagus and cucumber -- which are served as sushi rolls. It was truly a delicious, thoughtfully presented plate, and it paired perfectly with a glass of Ceretto Arenis ($9), a juicy, acidic Italian white.
At our waiter's suggestion, my wife had the Bento Box ($26), a traditional Japanese dinner served in a compartmentalized "box" that included teriyaki sea bass, shrimp tempura, a California roll and three pieces of sashimi. The sea bass was delicious -- the tender fish not at all overwhelmed by the light dressing of teriyaki sauce. And, again, the various elements of the dish were beautifully balanced, the richer elements contrasting with the slightly acidic bite of teriyaki, saltiness balanced by sweet, creamy balanced by crunch. And the off-dry sweetness of a Wegeler Riesling ($9) went nicely with the saltiness of the fish, while its well-integrated acidity cut right through the fried tempura batter.
To finish the meal, we compromised by sharing dual crème brulees ($7) -- one flavored with vanilla bean and another with shaved, toasted coconut. They were beautiful to look at, and, again, showed a wonderful balance of creamy and crunch.
Beluga has a spare, contemporary feel to it. The room we ate in had molded, blonde-wood chairs, white leather upholstery along one wall and white melamine panels decorated with swirls of reflective silver along the other. Diaphanous curtains and hanging beads separate various spaces, and the disco balls and projection system hidden among the exposed white rafters belie the spaces' dual uses as dining room and party area.
But the room, in retrospect, has a slightly schizophrenic feel to it, as if it can't quite decide what it wants to be or who is expected to eat -- or party -- in it. The volume of the dance music pumping in the bar areas just started to rise as we made our exit.
I understand that it can get pretty loud here in the later evening, and I suspect that we wouldn't have had quite as good a time if our experience had been less tranquil.
I suppose, however, that these contrasting functions -- food-centered earlier in the evening, dance-centered later -- are, in a way, perfectly apt. After all, at Beluga it's all about contrast and balance. ©
Go: 3520 Edwards Road, Hyde Park
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of fish, plus tofu, salads, chicken and pastas
Accessibility: Ramps provide easy access