I've been irresponsible. For the past few years I've been throwing around the term pan-Asian to label trendier restaurants that utilize Far Eastern ingredients (usually a combination of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese). You've probably figured out what I meant from the context -- my comments about the menu, specific dishes, cooking techniques. Only thing is, as any student of English Comp 101 will tell you, I've never bothered to define the word. So while you may have been doing your job, I haven't been doing mine. For all you know, when I said "pan-Asian influences" I could have been including sour cream and cabbage; after all, the former Soviet states occupy the continent of Asia as much as China does.
Of course, as sweeping generalizations go, pan-Asian isn't entirely off the mark. It does cover a lot of ground. And I have yet to see lemon grass borscht on a menu. But like all those who tend to pigeonhole and categorize, I occasionally have to re-evaluate, or risk being thought ignorant.
I found myself in this position at Indigo, a year-old Las Olas Boulevard restaurant that challenges the borders of my former definition. Located in the newly renovated lobby of the Riverside Hotel, this handsome, cherry-wood-accented dining room reminds me more of Indonesia than China, more of Malaysia than Japan. Which is pretty convenient, considering that the menu, though technically pan-Asian, highlights the "colonial flavors of Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia," rather than more familiar fare.
Calling the cuisine "colonial" may not be in the best political taste, but then neither was the manager the night we visited. After depositing a menu of tropical drinks "for the ladies to look at" (real men, apparently, don't drink Singapore Slings), he advised us that our waitress, "a little girl from Sweden," would be right with us. Fortunately she was, and he left the table soon after.
The atmosphere improved with the bread basket, an assortment of spiced pappadum, nan, and pita served with sides of apple-raisin compote and vinegary cucumber salad redolent of sesame oil. The same panoply of flavors imbued platters of starters; most dishes were garnished with the cucumbers, mixed greens, or a salsa of red onion, shallot, and tomato. The best of these, a round of baked Brie wedged over baby lettuces that were dressed with citrusy orange-basil vinaigrette, was also topped with garlic crostini for dipping. Encrusted with crushed macadamia nuts, the cheese had a nutty, buttery flavor, and the dish boasted virtually every texture known to the palate.
Both texture and color were monotones on the combination sate babi. A too salty marinade left the meats a uniform pink, making it impossible to distinguish between skewered beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp (well, the shrimp still had shells). Aside from the overseasoning, the nuggets were juicy, and the two sauces -- pineapple and chopped peanut -- made appealing toppings. Similarly, an eerily purple ginger-plum sauce was a great dip for crab spring rolls, crisp both outside and inside, having been stuffed with chopped jicama and cellophane noodles. Fresh cilantro kicked this up a notch.
Lemon grass was the principal flavor ingredient in an aromatic two-noodle soup. Buckwheat noodles and vermicelli nested at the bottom of a clear chicken broth, with leeks floating on top and hunks of white-meat chicken threaded throughout. We couldn't locate the fried bean curd that had been billed on the menu, though.
True to Indian and Indonesian tradition, vegetarians don't suffer during any part of the meal. Wild mushroom puffs were curried minced mushrooms, creamy and dense, stuffed inside papery pastry. Oven-baked but tasting deep-fried, they were delicious with homemade mango chutney. Baked nan pizzas were another terrific way to begin. We flipped a coin between the version made with roasted eggplant, garlic, curried tomato, and pine nuts and the one with onions, shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, and spinach, and chose the latter. Though chance played a hand, we congratulated ourselves on an appetizer well ordered. The thin bubbly crust was an ideal setting for the ripe goat cheese and sweet onions. Piles of fresh leaf spinach and sliced shiitakes added earthy color to the wheel.
For a main course, grilled vegetable cassoulet (eggplant, peppers, and squash in a tomato stew au gratin), udon noodles with broccoli and cauliflower, and bamboo-steamed vegetables with coconut-curry sauce were all tempting. So was the dish we decided on, tempeh and portobello Wellington. Pastry dough was stuffed with grilled tempeh (an Indonesian fermented soy product used as a meat substitute), portobello mushrooms, tomato, and sliced eggplant. These meaty vegetables were practically heartier than actual meat.
Unless, of course, you count the roast-garlic-stuffed filet mignon entree. This huge plate of food comprised a thick, tender round of beef wrapped in bacon and grilled, then glazed with a tangy tamarind bordelaise sauce. Flash-fried shallots and leeks garnished the juicy filet. A creamy potato lasagna -- layers of boiled potato stuffed with cheese -- was such a challenging side dish that it was hard to keep our focus on the meat.
Balinese lamb, medium-rare and muskily pungent, was laid atop fried coconut-accented rice and sauced with a rice wine reduction. Rosemary-skewered shrimp also carried a coconut flavor, grilled and laced with ginger butter. The half-dozen fresh shrimp, presented on a stalk of rosemary, were a light, fruity meal when accented by chopped apricot blatjang, a dried fruit salsa.
Noodle bowls, such as the slightly curried Singapore rice noodles, also provided a way to enjoy Southeast Asia in a less filling way. Like angel hair pasta, these thready noodles were wound around chunks of white-meat chicken and red chilies, and tasted mainly of lime.
Yet another satisfying dish was duck and snow pea salad. Crisp greens were striped like a California Cobb salad with lean, shredded duck, sparkling snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, and fried wonton noodles. A plum wine vinaigrette, beautifully balanced, unified the simple ingredients.
Sandwiches (including peanut butter and strawberry jelly!) are yet another alternative; we happily availed ourselves of a hefty ginger-barbecued pork. Loaded with dark hoisin sauce, the three slices of white meat were extremely tasty on a soft sourdough roll. Asian-flavored slaw and cucumber-pear relish rounded out the plate, along with a heap of golden French fries.
The favorite item at our table (and of customers in general, the bartender told us) was neither the most expensive nor the most complicated. Raffles chicken pie was a hefty casserole containing chunks of floured and braised chicken breast meat, shiitake and button mushrooms, and peanut gravy. The lid of the dish was fashioned from shaved slices of white potato, covering the mound of poultry like a pie crust. Rich, rich, rich.
Fortunately, you don't have to be to dine at Indigo. The decor might be tropically glamorous and reminiscent of British-ruled Asia; the attitude of the manager might be outdated (especially for such a young guy); and the food, pan-Asian though it is, might be as unfamiliar to the palate as Singaporean is to the ear. But the prices are for everyone, proving that the only class that rules here is the hungry.
Raffles chicken pie
Garlic-stuffed filet mignon
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