I suppose it's time to concede that the Asian bistro is more than just a passing trend. It's going on a decade since the first Asian restaurant with the word "bistro" in its name popped up in the Triangle, and the number of followers continues to grow. The concept is an appealing one: Asian cuisines prepared with a modern twist and an emphasis on fresh ingredients, and served in a vibrant contemporary setting. In my experience, however, the reality has rarely lived up to the concept.
Still, as an optimist, I have hope. I looked forward to checking out Red Bowl Asian Bistro. But after two visits, I have to say that, while the restaurant largely lives up to my previous experiences with Asian bistros, it only partly lives up to my hopes.
Certainly, all the distinguishing features of the Asian bistro are present and accounted for. Let's see, contemporary East-meets-West decor? Check. Menu peppered with terms like "caramelized" and "pan-seared" and "pasta"? Check. Fully stocked bar dispensing draft beers, a respectable selection of wines by the glass, and specialty cocktails with names like Coconut Cream Pie and Sweet Lychee Martini? Check. Sushi bar? Check.
Unfortunately, however, like all too many Asian bistros, Red Bowl is more style than substance. Plate presentations are pretty, with garnishes including parsley sprigs, lemon slices, shredded red cabbage and roses fashioned from pink-dyed daikon -- sometimes all on the same plate. But they're not pretty enough to distract you from the gelatinous sauce on the Vietnamese lemon sea bass they accompany, a sauce with no more of the promised lemongrass flavor than a generic Chinese brown sauce. Nor will they make you forget the bland cream cheese filling in the crispy crab wontons that preceded your entree.
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On the bright side, the wontons did live up to their "crispy" billing, and would rate above average in a typical strip mall Chinese eatery. The sea bass in the entree was properly cooked, too, and would have been a keeper if the sauce hadn't been so heavy-handed. I found this to be a recurring pattern at Red Bowl: Dishes frequently miss the Asian bistro bull's-eye, instead landing on the outer ring of passable Chinese-American.
Occasionally, a dish misses the target entirely. An appetizer called Thai herbal calamari, for instance, is marred by fishy-tasting squid. And more disturbingly, red snapper tastes fishy in an order of nigiri sushi.
More often, you'll find yourself thinking "not great but not bad," as I did when I sampled lettuce wraps filled with chicken, tofu, celery and water chestnuts (though why they're described as "caramelized" is beyond me). Salt and pepper shrimp, nicely cooked but timidly seasoned, evoke a similar "close but no cigar" reaction.
Sometimes, the kitchen does manage to come tantalizingly close to the bull's-eye. Scallion lamb delivers the goods in the form of lean, tender shreds of meat, sweet onions and still-bright scallions in a rich brown sauce. And if the sauce on Bang Bang shrimp were spicy as promised, the appetizer would fully live up to its name.
Based on my widely variable experiences, I'm guessing the culprit is not so much incompetence in the kitchen as it is a menu that's far too ambitious. In its effort to present a menu whose 100-plus listings (not including sushi) leap all over the Asian continent from Thai curry to tempura shrimp to Peking pork to Vietnamese summer roll, even a well-trained kitchen staff is apt to come off as a jack of all trades, master of none.
Red Bowl is a chain restaurant of sorts. Each Red Bowl is independently owned, though the restaurants share a common name and similar menu. Tim Zen, who owns the Cary restaurant with his uncle John Zen, says established Red Bowl owners share their knowledge with new owners, as well. The owners have clearly mastered the Asian bistro style. Now, if they could just master the substance.