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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Orcutt fusion: Niya restaurant brings contemporary Asian-style cuisine to old town


Walk into Niya Restaurant in Old Orcutt and a stately elegance is immediately apparent. Suddenly, any illusion a visitor may get from the “old” in Old Orcutt fades away behind a contemporary modern aesthetic and the aromas of fresh fusion happening in the kitchen. Of course, it’s more than design and aromatics that make a restaurant remarkable: The food, as well as the overall experience, are the ultimate deciding factors.

Niya readily accepts both of these challenges, striving for sublime flavor sensations while providing a memorable experience. It’s a mission that executive chef Alex Carpio both graciously accepts and enjoys meeting.

Chefs Eric Huynh and Alex Carpio lend their extensive culinary talents to Niya restaurant in Old Orcutt.

“It’s about creating a memory for the person. You may be just providing something for a short period of time, but they bring that with them,” Carpio said.

This attitude is a thread that runs throughout Niya personnel.

Like many chefs, Niya executive sushi chef Eric Huynh, delights in seeing the way a piece of fresh uni makes his customers’ eyes open wide while their lips curl into a wide, fat-cheeked grin. He gets inspired when a sashimi newbie looks at him in positive astonishment at their first taste of ocean-fresh fish. He has a passion for designing a plate that teases the senses with beauty and architectural symmetry. In short, he loves creating an eating experience. Even more than that though, he loves changing minds.

“I try to educate them about what they are eating and the taste profile. Maybe I’ll give them a little sample. If they like it, they are hooked; if not, at least I tried,” he said.

Huynh said the most rewarding experiences he has are with people who come in and say, “I’ll never eat sushi.”

“Now they love it,” he said.

Niya restaurant opened earlier this year, and prides itself on having just-caught freshness, artful presentation, and flavor fusion. The restaurant places an emphasis on Asian fusion with a more than cursory emphasis on fresh. Huynh said that he makes it a point to get the freshest and most organic ingredients possible, and he regularly brings in blue fin tuna from Spain, live clams, live uni, and scallops.

Carpio said Huynh lends a precise yet delicate hand to his dish preparation. Paired with high-quality ingredients and attention to creating a dining experience for the customer, Niya’s finding its place among Asian restaurants on the Central Coast.

The sashimi combo C platter includes 50 pieces of sashimi with 12 pieces of sushi, all premium, Chef’s Choice. Executive sushi chef Eric Huynh said he has a passion for creating artful pieces that taste as good as they look. He also enjoys educating people who are new to sushi about the taste profiles to expect so that they have a pleasant eating experience.

On the menu you’ll find dishes that remain true to Asian-style flavor profiles: steaming pho soup; blistered shishito peppers with sambal miso aioli; or a simple, fresh sunomono or wakame salad.

“We try to be as authentic and traditional as possible,” Carpio said.

That doesn’t mean they don’t branch out. That’s where the fusion part comes into play.

So you’ll find braised tri-tip with pad Thai noodles, grilled bok choy with wasabi foam, tri-tip jus, and micro greens.

One of Carpio’s favorite dishes to prepare is a Japanese cioppino with a San Francisco flair. He uses red miso, shishito peppers, and tops it with a linguiça aioli, which brings in a local burst of flavor.

The two chefs bring a variety of experience in fine dining and preparation of Asian-European fusion to Niya.

Huynh spent the last 10 years as a sushi chef, working all over California and on Nantucket Island at restaurants like Lola 41.

Carpio got his start at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion in Woodland Hills, one of the restaurants that pioneered Asian fusion, where he first learned how to mix European techniques with Asian cuisine. He also worked for the gastropub Public School 805 and for Tipple & Brine, a seafood-forward restaurant.

Huynh knew he was destined for the restaurant business because it was an industry his family’s involved in and he’s always had a hand in it.

Grilled tiger prawns, fresh manila clams, Brazilian mussels, and assorted fish make up Niya’s Japanese cioppino, a rich tomato-based stew infused with red miso. The dish’s an example of how Niya chefs create their signature Asian fusion dishes.

“I was raised in restaurants. I worked for my parents’ restaurant. Making dishes for people is my passion,” he said.

Restaurants may not have been in Carpio’s family but he developed an early interest in food preparation.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 5. I used to watch Great Chefs of the World, even though I didn’t know French,” he said.

Huynh said he enjoys preparing a fresh sashimi plate with a lot of garnish with an artful presentation.

Carpio’s favorite dish to eat is a pork belly scallop dish with parsnip puree. It comes with a reduction of sake, barrel-aged maple syrup, and brown sugar with Asian pear salad on the side.

“It’s local; it’s wintry; it’s spring. That’s why that’s my favorite,” he said.

Sun Contributor Shelly Cone likes the pork belly and the sashimi. Contact her through the editor at