We watched this place, a stone's throw from the Princeton Junction station, being renovated for quite a while. It's the site of the old "Good Friends" restaurant and the renovations seemed to take forever. For a long time there was yellow tape around the whole lot spurring a number of pretty pathetic jokes about restaurants with crime-scene tape around them. Then it opened and there were never more than three cars in the lot at a time.
Well it took a while, but tonight, while dropping daughter #1 at the station, we decided to try dinner there before her train. I'm the guy who didn't buy Apple or Amazon or Google when they were cheap; I'm the guy who thought social networking was a kid's fad; now I'm the guy who laughed at a place because of "caution tape" and didn't try sampling the food.
First, the three downsides: there's not enough parking (yes, I KNOW it never used to have more than three cars at a time, but now the lot is completely full all the time;) the tables are a bit close together and reminiscent of an extremely small middle-school lunch room; the place is a bit noisy - tables packed together, all of them full, and all wood: walls and floors...
Okay; that out of the way, I don't even know where to begin, and those of you who read my posts know that I'm never at a loss for words. First, this isn't one of those "Asian Food" restaurants where everything is served with soy sauce and ginger and that makes it generic "Asian." If "All Asians Look Alike" is finally a deplored racial slur, then "All Asian Food is the Same" should be equally be deplored. The Asian Bistro has four chefs (including the owner) who each specializes in at least one cuisine and together they handle Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese. Of those, Vietnamese is the least represented with only one dish, but it's Pho Beef Noodle Soup - an outstanding example of Vietnamese style, and a dish I have on my "to try here" list for next time. (If you like Thai, you'll find Vietnamese wonderful - it's similar to Thai in many ways, but has a different take on the meat in most dishes.) The rest of the cuisines are more widely represented, and the menu is large.
The restaurant has a "serve yourself" station and tables upstairs, and a full-service dining room downstairs. It's BYOB, and opens at 11 for the lunch crowd. Take-out is available and they are social-media conscious with specials on the usual sites.
Tonight, the girls had Sushi (available as full plates or a la carte) and I had a "Two-Halves" - a selection of two dishes out of twenty that span the national menus. The first thing on the table was a selection of 5 cold mini-salads - the equivalent of coleslaw in an American restaurant. The difference is that in most places (the old Clairemont Diner as an exception) you'd never go five minutes out of your way just to eat the coleslaw... I'd come back here for the brocoli salad or the wonderful cabbage/carrot salad (vinegar and sugar so completely balanced that you don't taste sweet and you don't taste sour) and the other three were wonders if not the hiddy-acts-of-god that these two were.
My "Two-Halves" came with a small salad and a choice of eggroll or steamed dumpling. I tried the dumpling (it was actually two) and it was the first thing on my plate (which was a "compartmentalized" tray again reminiscent of a middle-school cafeteria) that I tried... I have been eating steamed dumplings for almost 60 years and I didn't know the dough could be this tender and still hold together. Incredible.
I have been burned so many times by "appetizer places" - places where the appetizers are brilliant but the dinner itself is only just north of mediocre, that I tried my entrees with trepidation. I had the Drunken Noodles with chicken(Thai) and the Bulgogi (Korean, which is my favorite among the Asian cuisines - there is so much French in the Korean [and to a slightly lesser extent Vietnamese] that it's an amazing early "Fusion" well before an American chef stepped into the fray and 'coined' the term.)
The chicken, although not plentiful in the drunken noodles, was absolutely perfectly cooked. You can't fake the basic kitchen techniques - how often have you tried a chicken dish in a restaurant and your teeth don't even know when they've started biting into the chicken? The sauce was perfect; the noodles tender. This dish alone would have brought me back.
The Bulgogi was the best I've ever eaten. Too often it's prepared like "Spicy Beef Stew" (another Korean dish on the menu I'll be back to try) but here it's smoother and has subtle seasoning hints that would have been lost had the chef cut corners and used the stew sauce...
The accompanying photo (if it actually uploads this time) shows a meal for 3 at less than $40. Remarkable.
The Asian Bistro is not a place I'll go to when I drop off or pick up a daughter visiting from college; it will be a destination restaurant for us. I can't believe how much of a fool I was for letting the joke of the "warning tape" keep me from trying it sooner.