Restaurant Review: L’Asie Bistro on 6th

At the United Nations
June 15, 2007
Letter of Termination
June 17, 2007

L’Asie Fusion Bistro
603 E. 6th Avenue

*Delivery within a 5-mile radius
*Good for: first dates, business meetings
*Not good for: large family gatherings, late-night feasting
*Reservations accepted
*Average entrée price: $10

Rating: * * *

There’s something in a food writer’s contract that clearly states: thou shalt never eat alone.

As I wandered by my favorite coffee shop—Pablo’s on 6th—I caught the look of an unpresumptuous Chinese restaurant. These days, I have a hard time telling when Asian food can legitimately be broken up into its respective ethnic cuisines; I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have a grasp of anything authentic in the Eastern world. Sad as it is, I have found some Americanized staples that have done me well. And by that, I mean they satisfy a hunger aimed at sesame chicken priced under $10.

L’Asie Bistro on 6th has a quaint, neighborhood appeal that is sometimes lacking at other Asian haunts. Let’s be honest: most border on fast food and spend little time on décor or design. I’m not complaining, really (the food gets the attention, and plastic chairs with cafeteria-sized tables keep the prices down), but those restaurateurs that spend more energy on ambience usually get a second look from passers-by. This particular eatery has the trappings of a 19th century Victorian mansion on the outside, while the inside is clean, decked in deep earth tones, and offers a nice selection of seating. Because of the once-was home arrangement, guests can opt for elevated dining looking out onto 6th Avenue traffic. Or, a more intimate patio-level array of tables is offered for parties of four or fewer. Incidentally, this is the ideal place to take a date; I sat next to one and listened in on an awkward back-and-forthing about JRs before ordering my glass of plum wine.

Never willing to compromise my foodie rules, I made sure to call a friend before heading into the dining room for a table. Luckily, she was free for dinner. And, whether it was because L’Asie is virtually unknown or Asian restaurants are rarely busy beyond capacity, there was no wait. Seated right in front of the large window looking out onto 6th, we dove into the menu. First things first, however: what were we going to drink?

After parsing a somewhat confusing 2-for-1 deal, my friend opted for a crisp, if dry, Riesling, while I settled on my favorite sweet Asian indulgence in alcoholic form: takara plum wine. It’s served in a baby Champagne flute with a maraschino cherry soaking at the bottom of the glass. I can’t tell you who thought up that combination (I usually hate maraschino cherries), but the flavors meld well. It’s not something you down in a hurry, that’s for sure. Between the alcohol and the natural sugar, takara deserves protracted drinking.

On to the meal. Usually, my friend will order an appetizer of crab cheese wontons and an entrée of some variety, typically involving chicken. I’m not much less predictable; an order of egg rolls to start the meal, followed by sesame chicken with brown rice. L’Asie, however, made this regimented ordering somewhat difficult. While offering my friend the tried and true crab cheese wontons, I had to decipher the menu’s curiously titled “Vietnamese Egg Rolls.” Vaguely knowing the difference between spring rolls and egg rolls, I wondered if this were perhaps a fusion of the two. Fusion concepts—particularly those showcasing Asian influences—are popular now, so it seemed likely that the chef was trying out a variation on a theme. Unlike Paganini, however, I wondered to what degree a 6th Avenue, virtually undiscovered restaurant could succeed. Put on the spot by a high-energy, enthusiastic waitress, I buckled and ordered the usual. My friend was slightly disappointed in my culinary blandness.

Discussion, as usual, was quite enjoyable. Unlike many restaurants, L’Asie allows for coherent conversation without the interruption of constant noise. There is no bustle. There are no families with dyspeptic children falling out of chairs and exploding in fits of tears. Well, there were none when I went. It’s a great plus in my book if a restaurant can manage consistent and sizeable clientele while retaining a clam, quiet, and relaxed environment. Most nights, I go out to eat to spend time with someone. That involves talking. If I can’t talk without shouting, I’d much rather stay home.

To our left, the first-date couple wrangled on about work, bars, birthdays, and school. To our right, an older pair of gentlemen argued back and forth about the necessary dynamics of first-date conversation. (Do people really have a checklist of things to ask?) In between my friend’s anecdotes of drunkenness at work, adventures with friends, and the occasional insult hurled in good humor, our waitress kept a constant tab on our satisfaction. I applaud her devotion to quality service, though wonder if perhaps she bordered on overbearing. It was easy enough to watch us at a distance and evaluate our situation. Water was filled without asking; I always appreciate that. But when the food arrives and it’s clear that everything needed is laid out on the table, why keep checking?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My friend’s seaweed salad was the first culinary foray—an odd jamble of gelatinous, almost neon green strands tossed in a heap on a pristine square plate. She dove right in, never having had the unusual dish before, and muttered through several of her bites that it was “interesting.” I couldn’t begin to unpack her vague description, though I wasn’t really intrigued by the green concoction. Truthfully, it made me slightly squeamish. Finally, she claimed the jello-y mass was too salty and pushed it to the side. I was half-tempted to sample a strand or two of the leftovers, but kept my hands to myself.

Next came my spring roll-egg roll creation. Sure enough, the dish was akin to build-it-yourself Vietnamese spring rolls, save the rice paper usually used to bundle up the mounds of bean sprouts and pickled vegetables as filling. In my case, I was faced with all of the separate ingredient and a steaming plate of already-fried, pork-filled egg rolls. Eager to demonstrate the proper consumption technique, our waitress informed us that the egg rolls should be wrapped up in lettuce leaves with a mound of sprouts, pickled carrot, ginger, peanuts, and rice noodles. Then, carefully sealed, it is best dipped in the restaurant’s chili-lime sauce.

She left us to figure out the logistics of wrapping, filling, and dipping. I was skeptical the whole business would work. As a matter of fact, fried egg rolls wrapped up with a slew of vegetables seemed like overkill. Why not just dip the egg roll and nibble on lettuce leaves? As it turns out, there was far too much assembly required and I didn’t have the dexterity to master it. After two attempts, I gave up and went straight for the egg roll. I think our waitress was somewhat disappointed.

The crab wontons floated out from the kitchen shortly after we gave up on the labor-intensive egg rolls. They were not what either of us were expecting. Shaped more like empanadas and less like the baby pastry pouches we were accustomed to, both of us eyed them with suspicion. My friend took a bite with notable apathy. There was no crunch to these; they tore from your teeth as though the cream cheese filling had elasticized the whole wonton. I sampled one myself and found there to be precious little crab flavor in the filling, while the pastry shell was nearly limp. A disappointing venture to say the least.

Finally, my sesame chicken arrived—this time, with a bowl of white rice. In my book, sesame chicken is a good baseline measurement for how well an Asian restaurant can cater to the American public. It’s got hints of authenticity, but is likely so far from anything unique to the Asian continent, you might as well call it American. Still, it’s what most people think of when you say you’re going out for Chinese. As I have been able to tell, there are two distinct approaches to sesame chicken. On the one hand, you have restaurants that dip morsels of chicken breast meat into a batter, flash-fry them and toss them in a syrupy-sweet sauce and garnish with sesame seeds. The sesame flavor is mostly absent, but the presentation makes it seem like sesame is integral to the dish. The second approach seems more authentic, though I couldn’t be sure. Instead of dipping the chicken in a batter, it’s coated in sesame seeds and then flash-fried. The result is more or less the same—crispy nuggets of chicken (not dissimilar to chicken nuggets) with the profound presence of sesame. While the true sesame flavor is muted in cooking, it seems as though this preparation more rightly deserves the title “sesame chicken.”

The problems this dish often faces are manifold. The two primary ones, however—and my personal pet peeves—are over-frying the chicken and coating it in too much sauce. Sweet is a plus for most people, but too much is cloying, overpowering, and self-defeating. As for frying the chicken for too long, the result is usually rock-hard nuggets that are difficult to chew and offer up only dried out, gritty bits of chicken.

How did L’Asie do? Par. The nuggets were big enough (for the most part) that the chicken could be tasted and wasn’t too dry. Still, most of it was over-fried, tough, and extra crispy. Not, however, in the good KFC way. The sauce was ample, if not overdone, and the predictable sesame seed garnish was offered to convince me that I was, in fact, indulging in sesame chicken. Honestly, though, the sesame flavor was mostly absent. Was the dish tasty? Mixed up with some steamed vegetables, I can’t say I didn’t find it flavorful. Still, it’s not the sesame chicken I would have liked to enjoy.

We didn’t even take a gander at the dessert menu. Most Asian places will offer specialty bean-based drinks, green tea ice cream, or rice pudding. But none of those has ever seemed appetizing to me. It doesn’t help that I never see any drool-inducing pictures of the confections staring at me when I sit down. Say what you will about invasive advertising; it seems to work.

The couple to our left, having barely touched their heaping mounds of ginger and sesame chicken, excitedly shuffled away—one to work, the other to homework. The gentlemen’s conversation to our left was still going full force when I returned from the bathroom; I discovered that my friend had injected herself into fray, seeing fit to adamantly agree with one of them while heartily disagreeing with the other. Known for my non-confrontational approach to everything, I became somewhat uneasy at the prospect of talking her down. It wasn’t long before I realized the waitress was wrapped up in the debate as well. Giving up on any efforts to ease the tense, if fun-loving, patrons, I sipped down the last few drops of my takara, plucked the end of the maraschino cherry off in my teeth, and signed my receipt.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked. My friend turned around, smiling at me. Retreating to her chair, she shook her head as she collected her things. I could see the gears spinning and the argument still humming in her head. We got up, smiling back at the two enthralled gentlemen, and headed for the door. I nabbed a couple of butterscotch candies as we ducked out, heading down 6th Street to her car.

“What was that about?” I asked, afraid of what I might stir up. She started on an excited relation of everything that went on between the two men, her own opinion on the matter, and why one of them was clearly and unmistakably wrong. First dates get checklists.

All said and done, it was an enjoyable evening. If anything, I recommend L’Asie Bistro for its calming ambience, tasty plum wines, and undiscovered character. But try something other than sesame chicken; there’s a world of fusion fare I haven’t even begun to enjoy.

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