414 University Avenue, Hillcrest
"The Golden Dragon" must never plunge to earth: The neon sign is a historic landmark, so it has to shine on above University Avenue in perpetuity, even while the restaurant below has been renamed, refurbished, and reopened in a wholly different culinary style. The Asian Bistro looks a lot better than Jimmy Wong's venerable chop suey joint did in its final days. All is fresh and clean, with a stone-tile floor and banquettes covered in dark-red brocade. Billie Holliday sings over the speakers. At the rear of the dining room is a wooden sculpture. I expected the standard carving of a modestly dressed smiling woman, hands pressed together in a wai, the Thai gesture of greeting, but when I looked closely, it was obvious that this lady is no modest Thai girl: Bare-breasted, with her arms over her head and her feet afire, it turns out that although she was carved in Buddhist Thailand, she's a figure (what a figure!) from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, proving her marital fidelity by walking through flames.
The menu is an eclectic sampling of the cuisines of China, Japan, and Malaysia -- but with a focus on Thailand, since the owner and chefs are Siamese. If you were one of the many fans of Celadon before 2005, then you've enjoyed Songsri Thammasuckdi's cooking. As executive chef here, she creates many of the recipes and checks in several times a week to oversee the kitchen. Chef de cuisine John Thammasavong's handiwork may also be familiar -- he cooked for 15 years at Royal Thai in the Gaslamp.
Unfortunately, many of chef Songsri's labor-intensive masterpieces (her superb stuffed chicken wings, her lavish pineapple fried rice that's a favorite of the Queen of Thailand, and her Bua Sawan, a.k.a. "heavenly dish") haven't traveled to the Asian Bistro's more casual, pun-filled menu, which includes such dishes as "Thai Me Down" (spring rolls) and "Green House" (house salad). You begin here with "Fresh Start" (appetizers) and "Warm U Up" soups, followed by a new menu section called "Yum!" (a mixture of salads and noodle dishes -- yum means "salad" in Thai). "Greens" includes more salads, some with proteins like Peking duck or seared scallops. Entrées (the standard curries, stir fries and noodles) follow, along with "Royal Treat," the chefs' Thai specialties, mingling with dishes of other Asian nations and some fusionista creations. The menu is still changing every few weeks, so don't be surprised if you arrive to find it revised again, with new dishes and feats of wordplay added.
We didn't try a lunch because we'd heard from several foodie friends in Hillcrest that it was sub-par compared with the evening meals, perhaps because Patty Allen, the owner/sous-chef, doesn't come on line until 7:00 p.m. Instead, we came for a couple of dinners with friends, beginning the first one with the appetizer sampler called "Too Wong Foo." It includes "yummy sticks," satay chix, "money bags," and spicy lettuce wraps.
The spicy lettuce wraps, a.k.a. larb gai, are a salad of minced chicken with onions, peanuts, mint, and ginger in a spicy lime dressing, with an equally spicy cuke-and-onion relish on the side. This hand-chopped rendition is the best version of the dish I've tasted in San Diego. Bearing little resemblance to the grinder-processed or Cuisinarted "chicken sawdust" I've railed at in other reviews, it's complex and spicy enough to tingle. Adding a little peanut sauce when you wrap it up in butterhead lettuce leaves accents the flavors. "Money bags" are shrimps wrapped in wonton skin and fried, served with plum sauce -- crisp and enticing. "Yummy sticks" prove to be crisp vegetarian egg rolls the size of a short, thick cigar with a glutinous sweet-sour dipping sauce. The filling is the standard mixture of cabbage, carrot, and sparse shiitake shreds. We felt that the dish's title overstates the case -- they're just okay. Satay chicken breast seemed rather plain, with no distinctive flavors from a marinade or a smoky grill. The meat was reasonably tender and came with a heavy peanut dipping sauce with the oil starting to separate.
We couldn't resist "Jumping Jarvis," the odd Louisiana appetizer on the menu -- soft-shell crab fried in a light, spicy Cajun-style batter. (The recipe comes from friend of the owner and local chef-around-town Danny Jarvis, ex-Kemo Sabe.) The crab was succulent and sea-salty, with a nice crunch from the thin edible shell and the crisped batter. It's greasy but go-o-o-d. It comes with four little pots of sauce ranging from hot to ha-eee! My partner tasted them each in turn: "I'd rate them 2, 4, 6, and 8," he said. "And I don't know how anyone can eat the 8." He used the number 6, I took the number 4, but we liked the crab too much to use much of them.
Son-in-law's egg is a favorite Thai nosh rarely offered in the U.S., a pair of fluffy, hard-cooked eggs, deep-fried and glazed in vibrant sweet-sour tamarind sauce, set among spring greens drizzled with tamarind vinaigrette. It's pure fun. "Long Time No Sea" is a salad of seafood and greens, garnished with sliced ripe tomatoes, cukes, celery, basil, cilantro, and spearmint (which, unfortunately, tastes very different from genuine Asian mints -- but is evidently the mint that Sysco stocks). The dressing is a delicious lime-chili vinaigrette sweetened with palm sugar, an authentic Thai flavor combination, and just-right spicy. Unfortunately, the seafood tastes as if it's been frozen -- watery scallops, chewy green-lip mussels, and knife-sculptured slices of thick calamari (cut from a huge squid), plus tender medium-large shrimp.
Chilled by the May Gray, we chose a miso soup from "Warm U Up." It was light and subtle, closer to a good chicken broth than to the earthy Japanese version, with a few floating pieces of silken tofu and scallion. It's a miso for Thai tastes, and we gulped it down happily. On a return visit, the Tom Kah Goong (coconut shrimp soup) had a thin broth strongly seasoned with citrus juice, lemongrass, and enough chilies to register about a 6 on the heat scale. It's bracing rather than soothing, another true Thai taste. When the succulent shrimps were gone, we lifted our bowls and drained them to the dregs. Many other soups are available -- in fact, they're multiplying by the week -- including several Chinese specialties (egg-drop, hot-sour, and wonton) made from recipes bestowed by Golden Dragon's last chefs, the Fongs. (The kitchen will also prepare off-menu Chinese entrées like broccoli beef when the Dragon's devotees request them.)