EDMOND — Fusion restaurants typically feature dishes born of ingredient mash-ups in an attempt to create new cuisine, but the city's newest fusion restaurant is about how cultures in harmonious coexistence can elevate each other, which happens to mirror the story of its owner's life.
When Patrick Mok opened Cafe Icon Sushi and Grill, 311 S Blackwelder Ave., earlier this year, his goal was to create a place that would leave a lasting impression.
Whether that goal comes true is in fate's hands, but what Mok's Cafe Icon is today is a mosaic for the olfactory senses that tells the story of a man born in Hong Kong and educated in northwest England on his way to becoming a successful Oklahoma restaurateur.
The compelling nature of Mok's story would fall flat, though, if the flavors at Cafe Icon didn't deliver on the promise of its sparkling atmosphere.
With its Las Vegas-cum-Hong Kong atmosphere, beautiful sushi bar, clever plays on lunch fare and sizzling hot lava stone selections to crank the wow factor to 11, the future for Cafe Icon is as bright as the colors that adorn it.
Path of learning
It's our good fortune that Hong Kong native Mok, 41, won a prestigious national scholarship at age 12 to attend the 129-year-old Ellesmere College in Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border.
“It looked like some kind of a castle,” Mok said. “Very old, very traditional and prestigious.”
Mok weathered the bullying he said was standard for new students plus an extra dose reserved for foreigners while working his way through school to have enough money to afford a social life.
“To this day, I don't eat potatoes,” Mok laughed. “I must've peeled 200 pounds a day.”
Mok explained that while his scholarship paid for his room, board and education, he had to work in the kitchen each morning and take out the trash each night to earn money to keep up with his well-heeled classmates.
As his secondary studies drew toward their end, Mok determined he'd like to continue his studies in atomic physics and chose to attend the University of Oklahoma. He arrived in Norman with a grasp of the English language difficult to understand if you couldn't cut through his Chinese-Welsh accent, wearing cowboy boots he bought as soon as he got off the plane.
Four years later, he'd earned that atomic physics degree and was set to join the staff at the Superconducting Super Collider that never came to fruition in 1993.
“When we lost funding, there was a professor I worked with who didn't even know how to fill out a job application,” Mok said. “I didn't want to end up like that.”
After returning to Oklahoma, Mok earned his MBA and developed marketing tools for grocery stores. This landed him a high-paying job in Nebraska by the age of 24.
“I had a great apartment in Omaha. My bedroom opened out directly to the swimming pool,” he said. “Six months later, I was fired. I was on my face.”
Looking for ‘wow'
Mok said it took him two years to recover from the affront to his ego and glean all that failure had to teach him. By the time he was ready to open his first restaurant 13 years ago, he not only had humility but was ready to raise a family.
His wife, Joanna, mother of two children, is an integral part of the business.
“She's the brains behind the operation,” Mok said. “She also picked most of the decorations for Cafe Icon.”
Mok owned and operated the neighborhood favorite Tropical Cafe for a dozen years on the western corridor of Edmond Road, where he learned the ins and outs of a business not included in his secondary and university education.
Mok couldn't resist bringing to Cafe Icon the sandwiches, crepes and smoothies that made Tropical Cafe a favorite for so many years.
But to achieve his goal of leaving something his children could be proud enough of to consider running some day, he needed some “wow.”
“I wanted to bring a certain level of excitement,” he said. “And to me, right now, excitement is fusion.”
But the kind of fusion Mok wanted wasn't crossing ingredients. It was crossing cultures.
“I want to present culture on a plate,” Mok said. “On one plate, I can represent three different cultures, maybe four.”
For instance, curry chicken served on Mediterranean flatbread with a side of tempura vegetables includes flavors from three cultures on the same plate in a sensible way without creating confusion.
The lunch menu contains much carry-over from Tropical Cafe, including the aforementioned crepes and what they call “naan-wiches,” which are served with fillings inspired from around the world.
If flatbread sounds too heavy, Cafe Icon offers a range of “Crepe-wiches.” Choose from Thai, Italian, Mexican fillings
Mok hired Richard Lee, a sushi chef from Dallas, and an executive chef from Hawaii named Jwillson (pronounced Jay-Wilson as his mother couldn't decide between the two names) Williander, whose name fits comfortably in Mok's Dickensian life.
Hot black lava rocks
The sushi selections are broad, aimed at sushi purists as well as those just dipping their toes with rolls that contain no fish at all. Presentations range from ultra simple to spectacular, matching the chic-yet-kitschy decor, including chairs padded with memory foam.
But the item at the top of this food pyramid is not so much a dish as a style straight out of Japan by way of Great Britain.
Cafe Icon offers black lava stone style dining. Volcano rocks heated to between 600 and 800 degrees are brought to the table in a wooden case with a platter of sauces. The sizzling stones are topped with the diner's choice of steak, salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallops or the catch of the day.
“They've been cooking with lava stones in Japan forever,” Mok said. “But I saw it in England, and the way they do it in England is different.”
Mok said the traditional way is to serve the sizzling stones with a platter of thin-sliced raw meats like in shabu-shabu dining. But he said in England, sizzling stones were served with a whole steak sizzling on top, which allows the steak to continue to cook at the table. The meat can be cut away as necessary.
Stones stay hot enough to cook for 35 minutes, so dinner can easily transcend the squat-and-gobble mentality we can so easily be pulled into by life in the fast lane.
How better to spend two hours than with an array of sushi followed by a steak for the table plus platters of hibachi chicken or shrimp or panko-crusted Chicken Katsu leading up to a Strawberry and Banana Crepe and a Caffe Mocha for dessert?
Along with his wife, Mok has a strong management team of Vita Price and Bowie Wan. Wan's restaurant pedigree comes from parents Max and Cathy Chow, who owned and operated industry-favorite Chow's Chinese Restaurant for many years but sold the restaurant and are in retirement.
Cafe Icon is perfectly positioned to make an impact on the local dining scene; all it needs is time and attention to prove it can consistently push forward on its strong early showing.
To learn more
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 340-8956. To see the menu, go to thecafeicon.com.