Flavor: Japanese and Pacific Rim
Ambiance: Asian-themed decor
Service: Congenial and earnest
To me, the Asian Grill is sort of like an old, out-of-touch friend. We used to spend a lot of time together, but now, because of scheduling conflicts, distance and life in general, we see little of each other.
And so, with a feeling of nostalgia, a hint of guilt and a little bit of excitement, I set out down Hendersonville Road to see how one of Asheville’s favorite spots for Japanese and Pacific Rim cuisine is doing.
My guilt deepened a bit as I entered and the hostess grinned deeply. “Well, how are you?!” she gushed. “Long time no see!” Indeed, it had been more than a year since my last visit, and I was both amazed that she remembered my face and embarrassed to have neglected my friend for so long.
The restaurant’s interior is tastefully decorated in a style that my Picky Companion called “densely Asian.” Subdued colors cover the upholstery and walls, and the spaces between the dining room floor and the surrounding booths are separated by wooden partitions with glass panels that follow the same theme. We chose an intimate booth in the far corner; from there, we could look upon the small Japanese garden the restaurant planted to separate the business from the busy traffic outside.
In some past visits, I’d found the Asian Grill’s service to be hit or miss. The waiters were sometimes mildly surly and hard to communicate with. I discussed this with my dining partner, and we steeled ourselves for potentially subpar service.
We need not have done so. Our server, a young man with rock star-inspired style, was unfailingly sweet throughout the meal, bending over backward to ensure our experience was a good one. On one occasion, when he learned that the restaurant was out of an item we’d requested, he nearly sprinted from the kitchen to our table in an effort to fix the mistake without a moment’s delay. By the end of the meal (and after an encounter with an equally congenial busgirl), my companion had nicknamed the restaurant “The House of Many Thank Yous.”
The chef-created specials, scrawled on a piece of green paper in a hand reminiscent of my childhood physician’s, seemed to have grown in creativity and boldness since my last visit. On the evening that we dined, the kitchen offered live scallops and habañero masago (smelt roe), numerous bluefin tuna specials and the “ultimate cocktail” – a dubious-sounding creation that promised simply a mixture of “papaya and liquor.”
Thumbing through the menu, we felt somewhat daunted by the number and variety of selections. In addition to an expansive menu from the sushi bar and a fairly hefty list of specials, diners can choose from an impressive 106 dishes, many of which offer a choice of proteins. As if that weren’t enough, the menu clearly states that if you can’t find anything you would like to eat among the Thai, Japanese, Manchurian, Hawaiian and fusion offerings, the kitchen will do their best to whip up your personal request.
To kick things off, we ordered some bluefin tuna sashimi and an Iron Chef roll, which was a masterpiece of spicy bluefin tuna, eel, avocado and crab. (I think bluefin tuna is utterly delicious – but I’ve since learned that the fish is endangered, so sadly this might be my last bluefin binge for a while.) Both items were superb. The sashimi was fresh, clean and buttery soft, exactly how it should be. The roll was deftly fashioned and perfectly seasoned (and gone almost instantly).
Next, we ordered the Lobster and Lemongrass soup with shrimp and wantons. While we waited, we entertained ourselves with the menu, delighting in the warning for those who sample the Love Potion cocktail: “You are asking for it[,] no loves insurance written on this one.”
The soup was interesting, with tender seafood and a delicious dumpling, but the broth itself was suspiciously orange and carried a flavor that was quite homey, in a decidedly Western kind of way. The promised lemongrass flavor was completely obscured by the thick broth – but it bears mentioning that we ate nearly every bite of the bowl we shared.
Our entrees arrived shortly thereafter. We had the tempura snapper in spicy Thai basil sauce from the specials list, and the Orange Flavor Beef from the Manchurian Cuisine section of the menu.
The salads that accompanied our entrees were constructed of somewhat pallid iceberg lettuce mixed with a ginger dressing that was overpoweringly bitter with orange. I immediately wished that I’d taken the miso soup option instead, and intend to do so from now on.
The snapper was wonderfully fresh and billowy, with a light and crisp exterior in a perfectly balanced spicy/sweet/tart sauce. The vegetables I had requested as an addition to my meal turned out to be broccoli and snow peas, and they were expertly cooked, crunchy and emerald green.
The beef was good as well. It had been sautéed in a sweetish brown sauce with bits of orange peel and chili peppers for a nice balance of flavors, for those who can manage to fit all of those components in their mouth at once.
Unfortunately, after all of this food, we were too full to take advantage of the dessert special, tempura fried ice cream (but here’s hoping it will be on the menu next time). After all of that food, plus two beers and a pot of green tea, our bill hovered in the $50 range, proving that the Asian Grill is one place you can be fairly extravagant without breaking the bank.
On the way out the door, I promised to return, and I meant it. Perhaps this time I won’t let so much time pass between visits.