According to Tracy Yang, who owns YoHo Asian Bistro with her husband, chef Qing Lin, and partner Johnny Wang, the restaurant's name means "friendly." It's a fitting name, given the congenial ways of Yang and her wait staff. But if there isn't also some nuance to "YoHo" that translates to something like "whimsical," there ought to be. I certainly can't think of a better word to describe the restaurant's style.
The dining room décor, for one thing, is a happy hodgepodge of disparate elements, from cheery faux "clouds" suspended beneath a ceiling painted a deep sky blue to rustic bamboo stools at a sushi bar that's vaguely reminiscent of a tiki lounge. Wormwood-eaten tabletops and a ship's helm, nautical elements evocative of -- dare I say it? -- a pirate ship, suggest yet another sly twist on the "YoHo" name.
Plate presentations are frequently, well, whimsical. There's the maraschino cherry that garnishes an otherwise contemporary presentation of squid salad, a knowing wink to pu pu platters of a bygone era. There's the palm tree, its trunk painstakingly carved from a carrot and its fronds fashioned from cucumber skin, that stands sentry over slices of duck breast and a thicket of stir-fried vegetables in an entree called YoHo duck. Look closely, and you'll even see tiny cucumber-skin "coconuts" on the tree.
All that style would be for naught, of course, if it weren't backed up by good food. More often than not, it is. The squid salad, a medley of tender squid, seaweed, bamboo shoots and daikon in a light sesame dressing punctuated by flecks of Thai chile and slivers of fresh ginger, is as delightful to the palate as it is to the eyes. The duck breast can be a bit dry in the YoHo duck, but not so dry that it doesn't go down well with its brown sauce faintly redolent of star anise and cinnamon.
Chef Lin backs up the "Asian Bistro" part of the restaurant's name with an eclectic offering that spans the continent from Szechuan chicken to Thai curry to Singaporean noodles to Japanese gyoza. Lin also offers up a few contemporary takes on traditional dishes. His vegetable dumplings, for instance, are dyed green by the incorporation of spinach in the dough. Filled with a mosaic of minced carrot, cabbage and mushroom, and served in a bamboo steamer with a ginger dipping sauce, these little purses pay rich dividends.
Tempura shrimp and vegetables are a more conventional appetizer but are nonetheless reasonably satisfying. If the tempura batter were a shade more crisp, they'd be even better.
Among entrees, three-glass chicken is YoHo's name for a traditional Chinese dish more commonly known in English as three-cup chicken -- so named, legend has it, because the original recipe called for a cup each of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. Unfortunately, YoHo's rather bland rendition is not as inspiring as the legend.
Pan-fried noodles are a more rewarding option, the nest of egg noodles crunchy at the edge and soft in the center where they're topped with stir-fried vegetables in a mild white sauce and your choice of chicken, shrimp or shrimp and scallops.
Better still is lamb with leeks, the tatters of lamb tender and mostly lean in a rich brown sauce.
If you take the sushi route, your journey will be an uneventful one. The seafood is reliably fresh and -- except for a frustrating tendency for the fish to separate from the rice in nigiri -- the sushi is reasonably well-made. But there's little to distinguish YoHo from scores of other area sushi bars.
I should note that this review is of the first YoHo Asian Bistro, which opened in March. I haven't yet had a chance to visit the two other locations (one in Apex and the other in North Raleigh) which have since opened in blurringly rapid succession. Come to think of it, I wonder if there isn't yet another translation for YoHo's name: "spreads like bamboo."