April 29, 2010Greensboro is a surprisingly good restaurant town for a city of its size, but we do have a way of losing some of our very best restaurants. The recent closing of 223 Elm broke my heart, especially coming on the heels of the closings of Mark's on Westover, Revival Grille and Muse.
Often a restaurant closes because it deserves to management or the cooking staff changes, and the restaurant deteriorates. Before Equinox and Grappa Grille closed, for instance, I had already stopped going, driven away by plummeting food quality.
But just as often, the vicissitudes of life and business kill a restaurant while it's in the prime of life. The brilliant Rendezvous ended with the passing away of the chef; is it callous of me, having not known him personally, that what I mourn is the loss of the most brilliant parmentier I've ever had or expect ever to have?
It can be a kitchen fire, the loss of a lease or a brief slackening of business in a weak location the restaurant business is so marginal that even a profitable restaurant sometimes cannot absorb a sudden change in its cash flow. Sometimes, too, the owner or chef has done all he intended with the concept or the menu, and simply moves on.
Whatever the reason, I remember every great restaurant in Greensboro that used to be a favorite, and now is gone; I mourn them still.
One restaurant I have particularly missed was the East-West Bistro on Lawndale, which was the only true Pacific Fusion restaurant Greensboro has ever had. "Pacific Fusion" is a tricky concept, combining as it does not only various Asian cuisines but also the cuisines of California, Hawaii and the Latin American Pacific coast.
There have been some great ones in California, where an emphasis on seafood makes sense, and where "California Cuisine" is indigenous. But the sheer variety of sources makes for a difficult balancing act.
The California part of Pacific Fusion is crucial, and I haven't found any restaurant in the Eastern US that even understands what California Cuisine is. That's why I thought East-West Bistro to be almost a miracle.
Naturally, it closed only a few months after I started going there.
Now, in the building that once housed Grappa Grille (2618 Lawndale Dr., just across from Target), the Asiano Bistro has just opened, offering "Asian Fusion Cuisine."
For a moment my heart leapt: Fusion!
But not Pacific Fusion. Asian Fusion. Which means the California, Hawaii and South America portions have been omitted.
Which is fine. Asiano isn't trying to be East-West Bistro; its range is from Japan through China and on to Thailand. The menu doesn't go on to Indonesia or India, except insofar as they have influenced Thai cooking but I didn't miss them. Because what they do offer is so very good and highly original.
Of course there are plenty of excellent sushi choices, but that isn't the only idea that they got from Japan. There's a perfectly cooked dish of beef medallions that is, by itself, ample reason to visit Asiano, and the tempura uses a breading with an extraordinary texture, so that even tempura zucchini, broccoli and sweet potato are delicious.
Spring rolls? The best in town in fact, the first good spring rolls I've had in Greensboro since Park Place converted to a bar. (The P.F. Chang's spring rolls are one of the few disappointments there.) And Asiano also makes a "summer roll," also of vegetables, that I, a committed nonvegetarian, loved.
The Chinese dishes include the traditional. There's a General Tso's chicken or shrimp that is only as hot as you want it to be if you want the fire, you make sure to get the sauce from the bottom of the plate.
Asiano did a gradual opening (instead of the normal "grand" kind) so they could work out the kinks that came from adapting restaurant software designed for a different kind of restaurant and from having a kitchen staff that speak almost no English. I can tell you: There are no kinks now.
From the superb service (our attendant, Jada, was wonderfully helpful and constantly alert without ever being intrusive) to the perfect ingredients, cooking and presentation, there was simply nothing lacking.
Not only that, but the owner, who introduced herself to us as "Huong, like Hong Kong," explained that she is not looking to turn the table when you make a reservation, the table is yours for as long as you choose to stay. The food comes out in waves at leisurely intervals, leaving plenty of time for conversation.
We were with friends who share our love of dining and whom we don't see half often enough we didn't even notice, in such good company, that two and a half hours had passed before we were done. No one from the restaurant had given us the slightest hint that they thought we should be finished. It was like eating dinner in France or Spain, where it does not occur to anyone that your table might seat another group after you leave.
There are many fine places to get Chinese, Japanese or Thai food in Greensboro, ranging from the excellent chain P.F. Chang to neighborhood gems. It takes nothing away from these other restaurants to say that Asiano is something special.
And it's not just that you get all three cuisines at Asiano it's that all three traditions inform all the dishes, so that something new and remarkable comes out of the combinations. That's what "fusion" is all about.
Let me add a note about sushi. I love sushi. While eel leaves me cold, most of the other ingredients that sushi chefs work with please me; a good sushi chef makes me ecstatic, while with enough ginger and wasabi, I can enjoy even an average one.
Except for one huge problem: Seaweed.
Thin dried seaweed is what holds most sushi rolls together so they don't become crumbled piles of rice and other ingredients on your plate. But in my mouth, sushi is like long, unchewable okra it wrecks whatever it touches.
So I asked Huong if it was possible to order any of the sushi-with-seaweed dishes without the seaweed.
Immediately she started coming up with alternatives. When I mentioned the thin clear sheets that enwrapped Asiano's wonderful "summer rolls," she was surprised. "Rice paper?" she said. "If you can eat that, then no problem just ask for rice paper instead of seaweed."
So I'm looking forward to trying that on my next visit; if that doesn't work for me, she suggests soy paper.
It's a mark of a good restaurant that they adapt happily to the quirky tastes, allergies, dislikes and weird food fantasies of the guests. Asiano has passed that test and all the other tests we put them to.
For a dining experience like Asiano, I would expect to pay far more than their reasonable $7.50 to $25 dinner prices (less at lunch). Right now, the restaurant isn't crowded, but it won't be long before you'll need reservations to get a table. A restaurant that isn't pushing people out is one that can be hard to get into if they aren't saving a table for you!