New in East Sacramento, Origami Asian Grill embodies plenty of culinary paradoxes. It’s a tiny prix-fixe fine dining restaurant hidden inside a fast-casual restaurant concept that co-owner Scott Ostrander has offhandedly called an “Asian Chipotle.”
The restaurant claims Asian identity in its name. But when I asked Ostrander how much training he and co-owner Paul diPierro, both alumni of the Paragary Restaurant Group, have in Asian cuisines, he bluntly replied, “Zero.” In some of the restaurant’s dishes, that shows, to their detriment. Others are just fine, especially for the diner looking for a quick and tasty meal.
It’s not hard to find that at Origami, and it’s clear that Ostrander and diPierro are not aiming for completism on their scanty mix-and-match menu. On it, diners choose a protein (grilled chicken, glazed pork belly, smoked tri-tip or marinated tofu) to top ramen, a rice bowl, salads or to fill a banh mi.
There’s a farm-to-fork twist in the changing lineup of local specialty vegetables, such as Nantes carrots or Delicata squash. Appetizers include poke (not Asian but Hawaiian in origin), fried chicken with not-at-all-Asian maple and locally grown Szechuan peppercorns, and sunomono, a Japanese-style pickled cucumber salad.
As the lineup of dishes should make clear, there is no one “Asian” culinary tradition in any case. There are dozens, with only a few represented in an offhand, casual way here. The menu claims inspiration from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, though the most clearly discernible influences are Japan (ramen) and Vietnam (banh mi).
The distance from Japan — original home to the restaurant’s namesake origami — to Vietnam is about 2500 miles. The two countries’ culinary traditions have nothing to do with one another except insofar as they are not Western. Why, then, jam them together on a brief menu that borrows and Westernizes ingredients and techniques from widely disparate Asian cultures? And does it matter if the food at one fast-casual spot on Folsom Boulevard isn’t (the dread word) authentic?
The question of “authenticity” as regards any food served outside of its original cultural context is always vexed. And the impossible quest for authenticity has led to many a problematic, exoticizing TV food program and cookbook. And, full disclosure, I’m a white woman who has never traveled in Asia and I frequently cook stir-fries that would be unrecognizable in China for my kids.
All of us in Sacramento are swimming in — or maybe slurping up — a soup of different cuisines. Before Origami, Ostrander said, “I don’t think I’d ever made a banh mi but we’d eaten them religiously. We’d been everywhere [in Sacramento] to eat ramen and banh mi.”
Ostrander and diPierro, who have worked together at the Inn at Park Winters and Paragary’s, wanted a restaurant with “fine dining ingredients but a fast-casual pace,” said Ostrander. “We’re trying to bridge the gap and have cooks who actually cook, but we have enough volume we need to produce the food really really quickly.”
The pair thought a concept drawing on Asian influences could fit that bill. That said, the main restaurant is casual and very quick, but there’s also a five-seat bar where the pair offer a high-end, prix-fixe “chef’s counter” option on Friday and Saturday nights, with a tasting menu for $150 per head. In October, the chef’s counter has featured Asian flavor profiles in dishes such as quail with Asian pear and red mustard and Wagyu beef with tatsoi, kohlrabi and black garlic; next month will be Italian.
“We get to scratch that itch of working with certain ingredients and certain techniques,” said Ostrander. “We’ve got liquid nitrogen and molecular gastronomy stuff we can do” that’s not possible with the regular fast-casual menu.
Origami also touts its “hyperseasonality,” with a changing lineup of specialty vegetables sourced heavily from Riverdog and Full Belly Farms in the Capay Valley. They also work closely with Suzanne Ashworth of West Sacramento’s Del Rio Botanical, according to Ostrander. Ashworth grows Szechuan peppercorns for them — a numbing, pungent spice that enlivens the fried chicken — as well as distinctive greens like tatsoi.
Those vegetables shine in the ramen, a deep bowl of housemade noodles and rich, savory pork broth, as well as the rice bowl. The ramen, like all the entrees, can come with one of four proteins: juicy strips of grilled chicken, crisply browned and meaty pork belly, smoked tri-tip, or marinated tofu. I tried all with various entrees; the chicken and pork belly were my favorites.
On my visit, the tofu was bland and dense, its marinade undetectable. The tri-tip was smoked and salted so heavily it tasted like a beach bonfire, not meat. Such unevenness was a problem on my visits. That fried chicken is mostly great, salty-sweet and crunchy with rich mahogany breading and juicy flesh, but one piece (the thigh) was still inedibly pink and raw at the bone.
Another appetizer, the poke, was bland with its mayo dressing and had some sinewy pieces that should have been trimmed from the tuna. The third of the appetizers, the sunomono, was terrific, a simple and bright cucumber salad.
Among the entrees, a rice bowl was balanced and texturally fantastic, with flavorful onion glaze as the sauce and perfectly cooked rice. The housemade noodles in the ramen, however, were too soft and thin, lacking toothsome spring. And the second choice for broth, vegan miso, was so salty my tongue felt scoured.
The two salads, likewise, were studies in contrasts. Mixed baby greens with soy-miso vinaigrette were on point, with punchy dressing, bright apple, pungent radish, a sprinkling of flowers and the bite of pickled shallots. I’d eat that salad for lunch any day.
A cold noodle salad was an incoherent blend of green papaya and carrot shreds and fine rice noodles, on the other hand, was too much of an uninteresting thing. I’ve normally seen green papaya in a southeast Asian salad with the funk and tang of fish sauce. Its bright crunch was lost here in a thick dose of underflavored yuzu-ginger dressing, making for a dense and heavy bowl.
The fifth of the entrees, the banh mi, tasted good, but the kitchen needs a lighter hand with the fermented chili aioli they put on it. It dripped everywhere, making a mess. This dish is also the only one not served on a plate or in a bowl; oddly, it just comes wrapped in paper.
According to Ostrander, when the restaurant first opened, nearly everything was served in plastic and to-go containers. Patrons, however, wanted to sit down and enjoy a meal, and they asked for plates and less plastic waste. Accordingly, the restaurant has adjusted; currently, its balance of takeout and dine-in is about 50-50.
I’m glad they were responsive to diners; the space of Origami is pleasant, and the ceramic bowls they brought in are chunky and beautiful. (Like all the other restaurants of 2018, they also use sheet pans for service.) But the sandwich eater at our table appeared perplexed to be the only one without a vessel for her food.
Origami has already shown that it can be flexible and adjust to its guests’ needs. I’d love to see the big kitchen staff smooth out some of the wobbles in the less successful dishes. As the kitchen finds its groove, too, possibly the lineup could expand to include more dishes.
On the whole, however, Origami does what it sets out to do, providing likeable, savory meals that showcase seasonal produce and adding an elevated twist to the quick lunch or the weeknight dinner.
Whether it’s your jam depends on what you’re after in a restaurant. If you’re looking for a way of delving deeply and (dare I say it) authentically into the flavors of another culture, I’d suggest watching the charming Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix or driving around south Sacramento and spending your money at any restaurant or grocery store that looks interesting and delicious.
If you’re looking for a quick, filling, fresh meal that borrows from Asian ingredients but is ultimately as American as any hamburger, Origami will set you up.
Origami Asian Grill
4801 Folsom Blvd., 916-400-3075
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Beverage options: Bottled soft drinks (including ginger, passionfruit and ramune) and iced tea and a limited beer, wine and sake selection.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes; the flexible menu means all the entrees can be made vegetarian.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Moderate, thanks to a small dining room, but with an open kitchen and lots of hard surfaces there’s potential for noise if it’s jam-packed.
Ambiance: Simple and sleek, with red and black accents, an open kitchen, a menu chalkboard and a stripped-down but soothing atmosphere to match the spare menu. Guests order at the counter and can choose seats indoors, at attractive wooden tables, the counter, or on the small patio facing 48th Street.
This fast-casual venture from Paragary Group alumni Scott Ostrander and Paul diPierro draws local produce, the chef-owners’ fine-dining training and flavors from several Asian cuisines. The resulting build-your-own meals taste decidedly modern-American and in most cases quite good, especially for a quick weeknight dinner.
The fusion fare here is a little uneven in both concept and execution. Dishes riff on some Asian cuisines but don’t hew closely to any one tradition, letting guests mix and match proteins on dishes as wide-ranging as banh mi and ramen. Grilled chicken is moist and succulent, butsmoked tri-tip is overwhelmingly salty, as is vegan miso broth for housemade (but limp) ramen. Hits include the zippy baby green salad with soy-miso vinaigrette, the excellent pork belly and the crunchy, aromatic fried chicken.
Counter service is friendly and informative, with a staffer stationed by the menu board to explain the build-your-own concept, and meals are delivered fast. Getting silverware can be a little confusing (sometimes servers bring it, sometimes guests have to fetch their own plastic forks), but overall staff is well-trained.
Portions are generous and ingredient quality is high, making the modest prices — entrees for $10- 13 with proteins added, less without— feel very affordable. Beer and wine is similarly priced for everyday ordering, not a special occasion. Note: If you go to the Chef’s Counter portion of the restaurant, the price is much higher ($150 per person).