Asia, the continent, encompasses more than 50 countries and some 4 billion people. It stretches from Istanbul to Vladivostok, from the Arctic Ocean to the islands of the South Pacific. It is, to use the technical term, freaking huge.
Asia, the restaurant inside Lumière Place, reflects only a sliver of this size and cultural variety. Fair enough. It would need a buffet as big as Lumière Place's casino floor — or an especially ambitious or crazed chef — to offer dishes from so many diverse cuisines.
Instead Asia focuses on those countries many might think of when they hear the phrase "Asian cuisine": China, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. Your first sight of the restaurant likely will be the semicircular sushi bar. The sushi bar, the open kitchen behind it and about half of Asia's tables face the perimeter that surrounds the casino floor.
As I wrote when I reviewed Lumière Place's Burger Bar two weeks ago, this perimeter reminds me of an airport terminal. At Asia, which faces one side of the new steak house SLeeK and a station to sign up for a MyChoice gambling card, the airport-concourse vibe is undercut only by the incessant beep-beep-bloop of slot machines.
The décor is hotel-lobby-esque. There is a freestanding sculpture of what I think are supposed to be bamboo stalks. This serves mainly to block the hallway that leads from the dining room back to the kitchen from the view of passersby — though not from the view of most tables.
The menu is tucked inside a heavy hardback folder. This might seem a strange detail to note, but when the lighting evokes an eternal afternoon, and everywhere around you are the flashing lights and electronic plonks of gamblers trying to beat the house odds, such suggestions that Asia is a serious restaurant, with a serious menu, are welcome.
When you open this menu, you will likely notice two things. First, Asia is expensive. A bowl of the Vietnamese beef noodle soup pho, for example, is $12.95. Second — if your menu is like mine — the quality of the printed menu is poor, more like a photocopy of a photocopy than what you'd expect to find inside such hefty binding. In at least one case, the menu is also inaccurate. It lists the pho I ordered at $11.95, but my itemized receipt lists it at $12.95. The receipt is correct.
Though sushi is inclu-ded in this menu, as at most sushi restaurants, you also get a slip of paper with the sushi menu and a pencil to mark your selections. These are fairly standard: nigiri sushi, sashimi and Americanized sushi rolls including the St. Louis, the Philadelphia and even the Houston.
I ordered four different pieces of nigiri sushi — maguro (tuna), salmon, red snapper and unagi — each priced by the individual piece. All four were prepared well, the rice warm and not too tightly packed; wasabi, when present, contributed just a whisper of bite. The fish was fine, but by no means extraordinary; the tuna and salmon didn't convey their subtle flavors with the depth that the best nigiri sushi should.
The main menu is divided by course, not region, and Chinese — or American-Chinese — dishes predominate. Like many Chinese (or Vietnamese or Thai) restaurants, Asia offers too many dishes for a critic to undertake a truly representative survey. Still, I can report that nearly everything I tried was rather timid in flavor, and a few items were downright bland.
An order of potstickers from the appetizer menu brought four specimens nicely browned on one side. The ground meat inside the potstickers had little character, though, and the dipping sauce tasted like unadulterated soy sauce. Hot and sour soup was neither hot nor sour. It did have a savory, funky essence that I grew to like, but it will disappoint those, like me, who depend on the occasional dose of mouth-puckering, sinus-clearing hot and sour soup to clear the mind and strengthen the soul.
The pho fared somewhat better. The broth was light in body and flavor, its characteristic note of anise a suggestion rather than a declaration. It came with thin slices of eye-round beef, thicker slices of beef brisket and dense, sausage-like Vietnamese meatballs. It was a lot of meat, maybe enough to justify the $12.95 cost — though you can get pho with that meat and oxtail, tripe and tendon to boot, at many Vietnamese restaurants for at least a few dollars less.
This beef was just OK. The menu calls the eye-round medium-rare. This is tricky when it comes to pho: The meat cooks in the broth, and if the soup sits too long on the pass (as it did when I ordered it), the meat will be medium-well, at best, by the time it reaches your table. In addition, the basil that accompanied the pho was past its expiration date, and the plate that held the soup's traditional accompaniments (basil, jalapeño, lime, bean sprouts) was cold, as if made up earlier and stuck in a lowboy for who knows how long.
There are both entrées and house specialties. The former lean toward Chinese dishes we have all had many, many times. General Tso's chicken, about as American as American-Chinese dishes get, had the sweet, sticky quality of Chinese takeout. There were red chiles on the plate, but not much heat in the dish.
I had more luck with the house specialties. Cornish hen had a crisp skin and tender meat. I wanted more flavor from the honey-garlic dipping sauce that came with it, but I dug the side dish, a very chewy, almost tacky rice cake that had a mild, coconut-like sweetness. And at $11.95, the plate offers quite a value, relative to the rest of the menu.
To my surprise, I preferred the Cornish hen to the Peking duck. The duck's skin was crisp and tasty, but the meat was only moderately flavorful. Tucked with scallions and a smear of hoisin sauce inside a soft rice bun, the meal tasted mostly of hoisin. At $26.95, I expected better duck.
Having blown my budget on the burger with foie gras and black truffle at Burger Bar, I didn't order either of Asia's splurge dishes, bird's nest soup and shark fin soup. That said, I urge those of you who work up a sweat whenever I mention foie gras to ponder the practice of "finning" sharks for shark fin soup. Here's a chance to be self-righteous and justified!
Speaking of self-righteous and justified: A twelve-ounce bottle of Sapporo beer at Asia costs $7.25, which is just plain ridiculous. (Tsingtao costs $4.25. But Tsingtao isn't very good.)
Service is very fast-paced. Dishes emerged from the kitchen quickly: I ordered sushi and then, minutes later, an entrée. Both arrived at the same time. Checks were left at my table while I was still eating.
Your check does come with a fortune cookie. My first fortune told me, "You will continue to take chances and be glad you did." Maybe I'll start hitting on eighteen... I wondered whether every fortune at Asia would have a gambling interpretation, but another informed me I would "prosper in the field of wacky inventions."
I like my chances in succeeding in that field better than beating the house at blackjack.