Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Pan Asian Bistro Explosion

Pan Asian Bistros -- I like the concept, but rarely the execution. Finally, I found a good one -- a really good one. But first, some background:

A Short History of PABs in Houston

The first PAB I noticed was P.F. Chang's. It successfully appeals to an upscale white clientele by selling overly-priced, overly-sugared Americanized Asian food with mass-produced and mass-marketed wine. P.F. Chang's tastes like fast food, but cost a lot more. Its popularity is one of life's great mysteries.

Then P.F. Chang's unveiled its cheaper sister Pei Wei. At least Pei Wei is honest about being fast food. It is cheaper than P.F. Chang's and serves P.F. Chang's best dish -- lettuce wraps. But the wine selection is even worse.

Inevitably, more PABs opened. In the Heights, Mak Chin's serves cynical, overly-market-tested, vaguely Asian fast food. I couldn't say anything good, so I just poked fun at it.

Also in the Heights, Dragon Bowl is a much more sincere, quirky attempt at pan-Asian cuisine, even if their dishes don't always work. Dragon Bowl serves more beer than wine, and it has a strip center, fast-food vibe.

A slightly more authentic PAB -- Sinh Sinh

I stumbled last week on Sinh Sinh, a PAB on Bellaire Blvd., just east of Beltway 8. Apparently, Sinh Sinh has been around awhile. Now it has a new owner. Some customers report that it has gone downhill and that the service is awful. My service certainly was not good. But the restaurant is interesting.

Visually, Sinh Sinh looks like the restaurant Tillman Fertita would have opened if he had grown up Asian American in Bellaire. You walk in between two walls of tanks with live lobsters and crabs. The ceiling has a curved, flying wing and is painted in different hues of blue. One station in the restaurant is the barbecue stand, with roast pork and fowl hanging from the ceiling. The accoustics are terrible. (Studies show that high volume makes customers order more). And tables are jammed together. On a Sunday at 1 p.m., almost every seat was full, and I was the only non-Asian customer.

The menu is a mix of standard Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes. It is not very innovative; every dish here shows up on many other restaurant menus. I ordered a plate of rice with barbecue duck and pork. The barbecue style seemed more Chinese than Vietnamese. The meat was juicy and flavorful -- nothing amazing, just good barbecue. I also tried a Vietnamese spring roll that was good, but unexceptional.

What surprised me was the quality of the wine list. Sinh Sinh has some of the finest wines of any Asian restaurant in Houston, including a number of high-end Bordeaux and California wines. The problem is that most of these wines are oaky cabernets and chardonnays that don't pair very well with Asian food. But it is impressive to see any sort of decent wines in an Asian restaurant. If "bistro" is now defined as a casual restaurant that focuses on wine, then Sinh Sinh may have been Houston's first Pan Asian Bistro.

Yet I had the sense that Sinh Sinh is past its prime.

A PAB with great food and wine? Rattan Pan Asian Bistro

The best PAB in Houston just opened a few weeks ago in far West Houston -- Rattan Pan Asian Bistro. Rattan is the brainchild of Ron Chen, the original owner of Sinh Sinh.

First, I should warn you that Rattan is a bit over marketed. It may have the most stylish, contemporary website of any Houston restaurant. As you walk in the door, you first notice the giant flat-screened TVs flashing slide shows of the restaurant's dishes. Then you notice the Asian decor, which is surprisingly hip and ultra-modern for a restaurant that has counter service.

In light of this hype, the food is far, far better than I expected. The menu is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai preparations. The dishes focus on the best aspect of traditional Asian food -- simplicity and balance of flavors. Yet, they are much more innovative than any other PAB in town.

But these are not the same old tired Asian/American dishes. For instance, Buddha Chicken is a bowl of light cocount milk broth, served with steamed chicken, taro root, mushroom, sweet potato, and peanuts. The broth has a traditional Thai curry flavor, but is lighter in texture and fat content. Each ingredient had a contrasting texture, but the flavors married together perfectly.

The sushi menu is fairly traditional -- no far out American rolls here. I was impressed with the texture of the rice and the thickness of a generous piece of escolar carefuly wrapped over the rice in the traditional manner.

As good as the food is, the wine is even better. Rattan has a first-class list, with many different varietals from all over the world. A large percentage of the wines actually go well with Asian food. Rattan sells the wines at a reasonable price, and it sells 40 of its 120 or so wines by the glass. Rattan is the first Houston restaurant to use the Italian Enomatic wine dispensing system, which preserves the wine in an open bottle for up to three weeks. This is not one of Houston's best wine lists. But it is the best Asian restaurant wine list in Houston at this moment. (Long live Scott Chen's.)

Rattan has two drawbacks. First, the flashy flat screens and counter service make it feel more like Cafe Express than a comfortable place where I want to hang out for long. It doesn't achieve the "bistro" feel it advertises. Second, for an Inner Looper like me, Rattan is a long, long way west -- 1396 Eldridge Parkway. That is almost as far as Highway 6. I can justify traveling that far for a long evening at Rattan's neighboring restaurant, Le Mistral, one of the best French restaurants in Houston. But I have a hard time driving that far for counter service.

When Rattan opens a location near Rice U or the Galleria, I will be there once a week, glass in hand.


neverfull said...

i'm surprised you didn't order seafood at sinh sinh. you may have had a better experience. i had the dungeness crab rice in lotus leaf last night. it's a pricey dish at $29, but it is huge. also, try the lobster with scallions and ginger.

sinh sinh doesn't offer mind-blowing food (compared to SF and NY, nowhere in houston even comes close), but it is quite good for authentic chinese cuisine. i haven't touched any of the vietnamese dishes yet.

Anonymous said...

You might want to give Mak Chin's another try. Gone is the counter service motif. Gone is the previous menu and in its place is something superior to Rattan. Malaysian Roti Prata, Ropa Vieja of Crispy Duck, Beef Rendang, Sake Cured Alaskan Black Cod, etc. They brought in a consulting chef from San Francisco named David Yeo who specializes in Straits cuisine. It is truly a different day at Mak Chin's.