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Venue Review: Asian Bistro

Pick Thai, Vietnamese on this Asian menu
Asian Bistro
By "Greg Cox"

Bet I can guess what you’re picturing as you read the name of the restaurant that is the subject of this week’s review. So many restaurants have jumped on the trendy Asian bistro bandwagon in recent years that you’ve likely eaten in a few of them. You’ve got a pretty good handle on the concept.

Let’s see, you’re imagining a contemporary East-meets-West decor with an upscale-casual vibe and – of course – a sushi bar. A pan-Asian menu liberally salted with inventive fusion fare. Elaborate plate presentations garnished with carrot roses and other carved-vegetable fantasies on plates in a variety of geometric shapes.

Now, erase most of that. Decor at this Asian Bistro is strip-mall-on-a-shoestring-budget whose highlight is a Buddha fountain just inside the door. Beyond, the dining room is a sparsely decorated space with generic banquet room chairs at laminate-topped tables that are bare except for black linen napkin rolls. At the bar, a single TV screen (tuned to a soccer match, if one is being played somewhere) overlooks what may well be the area’s smallest sushi display.

You can keep the image of the geometric plates. A few garnishes, too, but nothing too fancy. And you certainly won’t find any flights of fusion fantasy on those plates.

The offering is indeed pan-Asian. But the menu sticks to traditional fare – Thai, mostly, with a moderate selection of Japanese and Chinese, and a tantalizing sprinkling of Vietnamese dishes.

Not what you expected? Take comfort in the fact that you’re probably not as confused as people who stopped in during the first few months after the restaurant opened in January as Saigon Bistro, only to find a mere handful of Vietnamese dishes on the menu. The owners changed the name in August in response to customer feedback.

They didn’t change the menu, though, which remains – more or less – a reflection of the owners’ multicultural heritage. Ariya Anakenong, who is half Thai and half Vietnamese, runs the front of the house; her husband, Laotian native Khamphet Ourawanh, is chef; and her brother, Anun Anakenong, is sushi chef.

Thai dishes – curries in particular – are a strong suit. All the usual suspects are accounted for: red, green, yellow, Panang and Massaman, each available with your choice of shrimp, chicken, beef, or tofu and vegetables. Flavors are true to form, and the spice level can be adjusted to your taste (though the kitchen tends to err on the mild side).

Red curry duck, which serves up crisp-skinned, bone-in pieces in a tropically fragrant curry chockablock with fresh pineapple, red and green peppers and bamboo shoots, is a special treat.

A Thai-style grilled beef salad showcases lean, tender petals of beef – each with an alluring blush of pink at the center – against a vibrant backdrop of tomato wedges, crunchy julienne bell peppers and iceberg lettuce in a classic dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and chiles.

Thai spicy basil beef, whose heat level doesn’t upstage the perfume of a generous lacing of whole basil leaves, is another solid option. So is tom kha, a classic Thai coconut soup (here available with chicken or shrimp) sparked with lemongrass, scallions and a whisper of red chile that delivers a spectrum of flavors with each spoonful.

The Japanese banner is carried for the most part by a few hibachi and teriyaki variations, with a little help from the appetizer list in the form of edamame, miso soup and tempura. And, of course, the sushi bar, which turns out a limited but respectable selection of rolls (available as a “buy one, get one half off” proposition all the time).

In terms of quantity and quality (nothing particularly memorable, one way or another), the Japanese offering has a perfunctory feel about it. You get the feeling it’s there just because it’s expected.

Same goes for the Chinese offering, which is essentially an abridged edition of a takeout menu. You’re not likely to be seriously disappointed by your order of crab wontons, Mongolian beef and sesame chicken, but neither are you apt to be blown away. Even the steamed sea bass with ginger sauce, listed under the Chef’s Special heading, will tease you with beautifully cooked fish and then let you down with a too-salty sauce.

In contrast, the Saigon street noodles I enjoyed recently make me wish that the Vietnamese offering was more extensive. As it stands, once you’ve tried the Saigon noodles and pho and duck noodle soup, you’ve pretty much exhausted the options for a cuisine that appears to be, along with Thai, a kitchen strength.

As for Japanese and Chinese: Let’s face it, both are amply represented hereabouts. I don’t think they’d be missed at this Asian Bistro.

To be on the safe side, they could always keep the sushi bar.

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December 15, 2012 - Triangle.com - Greg Cox

Bet I can guess what you’re picturing as you read the name of the restaurant that is the subject of this week’s review.

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