Temple St. cafe stages coup d’etat of New Haven Asian fusion

Kudeta is nothing if not ambitious. Its epic-length menu, its army of waiters and its over-the-top decor scream, “Look at me! I’m a trendy restaurant!” And trendy it is, but I hope for its sake it’s a trend that New Havenites can latch on to. Kudeta’s fusion dishes, influenced by the cuisines of countries from all over Asia, are ambitious and flawlessly prepared; but the atmosphere is pretentious and the prices aren’t likely to make it a regular destination for most Yalies.

The interior design at Kudeta, across from the Criterion Cinemas, is something in the neighborhood of Japanese tea house meets 1980’s coke binge. Bamboo and neon are everywhere. One wall is decorated with backlit, color-changing geodes, while the centerpiece of the dining room is glass tower filled with psychedelically illuminated butterflies. This butterfly obelisk towers over the diners and leaves one with the feeling he has stumbled into the Night Club of Natural History.

If the glitz doesn’t tip you off that Kudeta is trying a little too hard, the legion of waiters should. There were four or five waiters just standing around the whole time I was there and, while I did visit early on a slow night, the restaurant would do well to anticipate how many servers it will need. Someone had also clearly instilled in the wait staff that this was a “Fancy Restaurant.”

When our server approached our table for the first time and asked sweetly if she could interest us in a bottle of water, I nearly laughed out loud. This sort of pomp and circumstance has a place — it’s called New York City — but I don’t think New Haven is quite ready for this sort of affectation. Pretense aside, the service was impeccable, and even the waiters themselves seem a little uncertain about Kudeta’s wild aspirations.

To top it off, you’re not going to get out the door here for under $30 a head, and if you’re planning on drinking, you can knock that up to $50. Kudeta is a special occasion sort of place.

But squint past the neon, wade through the sea of waiters, glide past the butterfly obelisk, and hack your way through the jungle of pretension, and you’re in for a spectacular dining experience. Every item that came out of the kitchen at Kudeta showed evidence of thoughtful and careful attention. Ingredients, concept, preparation and presentation. From start to finish, the dishes shine.

Kudeta’s Sushi tastes clean and fresh — shrimp, crab, salmon, tuna, yellow tail. Sushi perfection is difficult to describe, but, rest assured, this is it. A good way to try a variety of Kudeta’s offerings is the sushi and sashimi deluxe ($22). A chef’s selection of rolls, nigiri, and sashimi, it includes the classics listed above as well as a few more unusual pieces, such as round clam and super white tuna. Loaded with an impressive amount of fish, it’s actually one of the better values on the menu.

A note about that menu: it’s way, way, way too long. The regular menu, which doesn’t include sushi, drinks, or dessert, lists over 70 different items. Kudeta would do well to cut the thing in half. Sure, they all look good, but the numerous options leave diners confused. If you end up at Kudeta and feel this sense of confusion, do what I did: pick at random. Everything I tried was excellent, and though there are probably a few misfires on the menu, your odds are good for hitting on something you’ll like.

Seaweed salad ($5) is a safe bet — crunchy wakame seaweed dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil. Kudeta adds an extra kick with lemon juice and hot pepper flakes. Crab meat quesadillas ($11) were the only dish that fell a little short of excellent, though they still landed squarely on very good. Crispy tortillas filled with big chunks of white crabmeat, egg, cheddar cheese, and scallions, were tasty, though the “Asian guacamole” suggests that perhaps guacamole should be left in the hands of its Mexican progenitors. It was bland and gooey.

While the quesadilla satisfied, pork a la Bali ($17) shined. Sliced pork in a dark curry flavored with lemongrass, coconut and peanuts, the dish is served in a lidded earthenware pot. When the server removes the top tableside, all the aromas of the dish rush out at once, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to thrust your face into the curry and start slurping. The dish comes with a long piece of fry bread which, when I first tried it, tasted oily and greasy; but when I realized it was meant to soak up the curry, I found it the perfect utensil for getting the last little bit of sauce out of the pot.

Kudeta suffers from delusions of grandeur, a sort of grandeur that isn’t really attainable in New Haven — at least not yet. Union League and Ibiza are high-class restaurants, but each has a classic style and a finely defined sense of who they are. Kudeta’s attempts at style seem random and poorly thought out. But the food is excellent, the ninth square area is up and coming, and behind all the neon, the airy pretense, and the inscrutable menu, Kudeta is a terrific restaurant waiting to be discovered. It only remains to be seen whether people will be willing to find it.

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