Restaurants can run into trouble by trying to do too many things at one time. It’s hard enough to be a really good, say, barbecue joint. But when you try to throw in Italian, Low Country seafood, and North African cuisine, and pretty soon you start to suffer from what I call restaurant schizophrenia: doing lots of cool things badly. On the other hand, some places have found a way to mix a few different styles together in a harmonious way. Take Café Asia at the Bonsack Kroger Shopping Center on 460. As the name implies, they blend the cuisines of a number of Asian countries – Japan, Korea, Thailand, China – and none of them seems to suffer too much from not being the primary focus.
We stopped in pretty late one Friday night, and even though it was getting toward closing time, it was still hopping enough that they could only give us a choice between one small table near the kitchen, or sitting at the sushi bar. This wasn’t a problem; the sushi bar is where the action is. Besides, sushi chefs tend to give you stuff you didn’t ask for, and this night was no exception. One of the two young guys rolling up the maki slid us a little bowl with a tangy salad of crisp vegetables and seaweed.
We started our whirlwind tour with a tasty dish of spicy kimchi – a blend of spicy, tangy pickled vegetables that really get your attention – and a sampling of wasabi shumai. The wasabi mixed into these bite-sized pork dumplings gave them a similar spicy kick.
Milder, but still delicious, was an order of grilled calamari. Unlike the breaded calamari you can get at your favorite Italian joint, this squid was naked aside from a tasty sauce, allowing the fresh flavor to come through.
Sitting at the sushi bar inspired my wife to order the Volcano maki for dinner, but the Koung Bao Style Scallops on the menu had caught my eye, and I went for that.
As we waited for dinner, we had a good time just enjoying the vibe of the place. The dining area is fairly small and cozy, and is adorned with a colorful array of decorations from around Asia. Tiny wooden junks sail along shelves with unfurled sails, dancing geisha dolls, and statues of smiling, waving cats. All of the staff seemed to be having as much fun as the patrons, and our servers were super-friendly without being too intrusive.
We watched the sushi chefs teaming up on an amazing creation as we waited. They stacked rolls of maki like Legos to make a little mound on a plate, then balanced more sushi on top of a cocktail glass that was filled with streamers and some kind of tiny glowing electronic orb. A plastic palm tree was jammed down into a tiny island of wasabi paste. It was garish. It was gaudy. It was wonderful!
“Oh, quick!” my wife cried. “Get a picture of that with your phone before they take it away!” So I scrambled my phone out of my pocket, dredged some of the lint off of the lens, and snapped a couple of shots of it. Right before they picked it up and put it in front of my wife, for this was her Volcano maki.
I was having too good a time to feel too silly, as I tucked into my Koung Bao, a blend of peppers, celery, peas, carrots, and peanuts decked out in a sweet and spicy sauce and blended with large, meaty sea scallops. I enjoyed it a lot, though I’m not sure it was spicy enough to earn the “two pepper” rating on the menu.
My wife’s maki was very good as well, rolled up with tuna, salmon, cucumber and roe. She nodded at the two guys behind the counter and said, “These guys know their stuff. And you can quote me.”