There's something slightly out of sync about the mirrored crystal disco ball over Asian Restaurant's door. It seems inappropriate for a place with such an austerely generic name, and not at all in keeping with the restaurant's modest claim to have the "best macrobiotic food in town."
But perhaps the cheap Chinese restaurant ambiance that the disco ball pays homage to is meant to reflect the surprise that awaits the diner inside. Asian Restaurant isn't just a Chinese health food emporium after all. Nor, for that matter, is it truly macrobiotic in the conventional sense of the word. And the offerings on the lunch buffet -- sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken and the like -- look like they could be found on any lunchtime Chinese steam table. Not that the claim is entirely misleading. Asian Restaurant does offer many more vegetarian selections than the average Chinese restaurant, they do eschew all use of MSG and they do serve brown rice, the perfect macrobiotic food.
Even the extensive non-vegetarian selections -- which are decidedly not macrobiotic, as such a diet allows only occasional small amounts of fish -- are made up of mostly expertly cooked dishes, at least as evinced by the items I tried from the menu's four pages and 90-plus meat-oriented offerings. Still, though meat dishes are available, it's easy to tell where the kitchen's priorities lie: if the menu as a whole rates an A, then the vegetarian section rates an A plus.
Take, for example, the vegetarian steamed dumplings, which are odd but agreeable little things. Diminutive half-moon shaped raviolis made of thin, delicate dough and filled inside with masticated, peanuty-tasting tofu, they're great, particularly when doused in a bit of Asian Restaurant's homemade soy sauce. That soy sauce is a marvel. It sits on the tables disguised in Kikkoman bottles as grocery store-caliber soy sauce, but its semisweet, smoky flavor, not to mention the welcome absence of excessive salt, bespeaks a subtlety in the brewing process that is the trademark of a homemade product. I find myself tucking as many plastic thimblefuls of the sauce as I can into my handbag to accompany any leftovers I'm taking home.
Another starter on the vegetarian menu that's different from what I've come to expect at the standard Asian eatery are the veggie spring rolls. These have a fermented taste and smell that, though it might not sound particularly appetizing, is surprisingly pleasant. You can truly taste the sourish icicles of tofu that, along with tentacles of all kinds of other produce, are tightly wound inside the sturdier-than-usual rice paper wrappers. The texture remains nicely crispy, too. The accompanying peanut sauce is like a slightly thinned down version of peanut butter -- not as sweet nor as runny as the peanut sauces I'm familiar with. Like the soy sauce, it's made even better by a baby spoonful of hot red pepper sauce stirred in for extra zing.
In a mouthful of the vegetarian miso soup, you'll find a few melt-in-your-mouth, cube-shaped pearls of tofu, prongs of organic-tasting and organic-colored seaweed sticking out every which way, some vibrantly green peas and a couple of blackish leaves of an unidentified nature, all suspended in a delicate, slightly cloudy miso broth. Normally, I'm not fond of miso soup. But this time around I suspended my usual dislike, and I'm glad I did. How, I wondered, could miso, which to me resembles nothing so much as compost, result in a broth that's so refined?
The main courses didn't disappoint either, whether I was on the herbivore or omnivore side of the menu. In fact, anything in garlic sauce is sublime here. The golden vegetable plate with tofu presents tender stir-fried tofu (a tough feat to pull off, as anyone knows who's sampled much of the rubbery, puckered bean curd proffered by many Asian restaurants) in a whisper-light garlic sauce along with still-emerald broccoli florets and large shards of crisply tender onions. The black pearl shrimp (black pearl being the charming Chinese appellation for these most tasty of legumes, black beans), though unfortunately slightly iodiney, swims in that same intoxicating garlic sauce. But the true piece de resistance at Asian, my favorite dish out of the many I tried, is the eggplant with garlic sauce. This stuff is so yielding, so cloudlike as to seem not even there at all. Yet at the same time, it's slippery and the tiniest bit gummy. I never could figure out how the cook managed to get the greenish-beige ribbons to be both fluffy and sticky at the same time. But no matter. Some mysteries are simply to be enjoyed. Adding to the pleasure is what seems to be a ton of toasty golden sesame seeds that grace the eggplant's surface, and the orange-hued sauce that ties everything together. Trust me: this is eggplant for even non-lovers of the vegetable.
Less successful was the imperial tofu, which failed to yield as many of the advertised black mushrooms as I had hoped for. (I counted all the mushrooms on fewer than the fingers of two hands.) Still, the dish's sweet brown gravy, mildly fruity, and its super-fresh mixed vegetable accompaniment pleased immensely. Of the meatless offerings, the only true disappointment was the curry vegetable fried rice, which tasted like it had been smothered in a Spice Island-type hybrid curry powder.
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Other curry-style recipes were more successful, if not always perfect. The West Indies curry fish, a lightly fried fish filleted and sliced into hefty chunks, was a tad too fishy to meet my standards. But the very hot, very yellow sauce, lovely to behold with its tiny red pepper flecks, and the crisp vegetables enveloped by that sauce joined together to save the dish from the less-than-fresh-fish blues. Same with the chicken curry: the sunshine yellow sauce was a sniffle inducer, and helped make up for chicken that was occasionally gristly. Big cubes of potatoes and flecks of black beans aided and abetted that rescue.
Opened in the early '80s as a family affair by owner Tom Tran and some of his cousins -- one of whom, a Buddhist monk, provided much of the initial health-food impetus that's still followed by the original cook, another Tran cousin -- Asian Restaurant has pretty much kept true to its original concept. Given that the few flaws I found were unearthed in the meat dishes, and considering the finesse with which nearly every single vegetable dish was handled, I have to wonder if Asian Restaurant isn't one of those places that serves meat only because it feels like it has to in order to survive in this flesh-loving town. But if that's what it takes to support a vegetable habit this enjoyable for the rest of us, so be it.
Asian Restaurant, 3701 Weslayan, 629-7805.
steamed dumplings, $3;
eggplant with garlic sauce, $6.25;
West Indies curry fish, $6.50.