Restaurant Review

Solid execution takes Café Asia beyond trend

CorrespondentJune 10, 2011 

  • 9650-145 Strickland Road, in Harvest Plaza, Raleigh


    Cuisine: Thai, Japanese

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: Asian bistro

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: attentive and eager to please

    Recommended: B.K.K. roll, Thai sausage, lobster pad thai, green Thai curry, nigiri sushi, teriyaki

    Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Just inside the front door at Café Asia, nine small brass bells hang in neat rows on a wall. The bells are from Thailand, souvenirs of a visit by the restaurant's owners, Charlie and Lisa Bhudasuwan, to their native country. The number is significant, according to Charlie Bhudasuwan, because nine is considered to be an especially lucky number in Thai culture.

Besides offering a quaintly charming welcome, the bells are the first clue that there's more to Café Asia than the generic pan-Asian eatery implied by its name. And, for that matter, by a dining room and sushi bar whose earth tones and East-meets-West decor suggest "trendy Asian bistro."

On the surface, the menu fits that mold, too, with a mix of traditional and contemporary fare - mostly Thai and Japanese, with a smattering of dishes such as Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls and Indonesian egg noodles to justify the "Asian" part of the restaurant's name.

Look a little closer, though, and you'll discover a few pleasant surprises. An appetizer order of Thai sausage produces bite-size segments of lemongrass-punctuated pork links on a bed of lettuce, with a garnishing pastiche of cilantro, scallions, shaved fresh ginger and a lime wedge offering refreshing counterpoint.

A salad of iceberg lettuce, mandarin orange segments and almonds topped with strips of teriyaki-marinated grilled chicken breast is another refreshingly different starter. The teriyaki sauce accents the meat rather than overwhelms it, making entree offerings of grilled mahi, salmon and sirloin teriyaki tempting options even for those of us who usually find teriyaki dishes cloying.

Plate presentations are attractive but not fussy, with sprigs of fresh herbs and threads of finely shredded beet making frequent appearances as garnishes. Siam duck is a kaleidoscope of julienne red and green bell peppers, onions and rosy-centered medallions of duck breast in Thai spicy basil sauce, flanked by twin molded cylinders of jasmine rice.

But the prize for most striking presentation goes to lobster pad thai, a still life of toothsome noodles and crunchy bean sprouts framed by the split shell of a lobster tail - whose entire contents clearly went into the preparation of the dish.

Sushi, too

It isn't visual drama or inventiveness that sets Café Asia apart, however, as much as it is solid execution. The only distinctive feature about the B.K.K. roll is its name, which is inspired by the international designation for the Bangkok airport. Unless, that is, you count the fact that it's a textbook rendition of a classic Thai spring roll, from savory ground chicken filling to shatter-crisp wrapper. (The crispy ginger roll is an equally rewarding - if not so cryptically named - vegetarian variation.)

Same goes for a straightforward, but nonetheless satisfying, stir-fry of Asian eggplant and tofu in black bean sauce. And Singapore noodles, which don't skimp on the chicken, shrimp and other goodies. And a tropically fragrant green Thai curry, loaded with snappy vegetables and plump, sweet shrimp.

The sushi bar offering isn't as extensive as you'll find at some dedicated Japanese restaurants, but with some two dozen nigiri and sashimi options, you'll hardly lack for choices. And, judging by a wide-ranging sampling that included flounder, mackerel, scallop, tuna, yellowtail and unagi eel, I'd say the quality is more than respectable. (Prices are reasonable, too, but be advised that nigiri sushi is priced by the piece, not by the pair.)

Café Asia's offering of 15 house specialty sushi rolls is dwarfed by the encyclopedic lists that are increasingly in vogue, but standards such as Dynamite, Dragon and Spider roll are present and accounted for. If you've got a yen for something you don't see, the Customer Request Roll allows you to create your own combination.

Still, it's Thailand that is the prime attraction of this culinary continent. That comes as no surprise, given the owners' provenance - not to mention the fact that the Bhudasuwans also own Lemongrass, a tiny jewel box of a Thai eatery that has thrived for eight years in spite of an off-the-beaten-path location. Given the couple's track record, I doubt they'll need much luck to be similarly successful with Café Asia. Lucky or not, though, you've got to admit those bells are a nice touch.

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