Despite the proverbial advice to the contrary, people do judge books by their covers. Some also grab or pass up wine on the rack because of an eye-catching label and one might even make snap judgments about a restaurant based on its name.
I know I did when it came to Philip Chan's Asian Cajun Bistro. The words Asian and Cajun are usually only seen in the same title when Harry Lee throws himself a fundraiser, and when they appeared together a few years ago over the door of a new restaurant on Decatur Street it seemed like one of those marketing schemes aimed at tourists. But my skepticism based on the name proved as misguided as blowing off the New Orleans Saints because you don't happen to be Catholic.
The Asian Cajun Bistro is not at all Cajun but instead mixes up familiar flavors from the Chinese-American restaurant canon with offbeat approaches and unexpected pairings. And despite some disappointing or downright strange concoctions, most meals here are happy affairs singing with the flavors of sweet hoisin, sharp ginger, hot red chili, sesame oil, salty soy sauce and straight-up sugar. No Cajun would recognize any of the dishes as home cooking but might nevertheless appreciate chef/owner Philip Chan's heavy hand with spice and skill with the fryer.
Chan is a native of Hong Kong who had an engineering career and no formal culinary training before he made the radical switch to the restaurant business. In 1984, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta called Chopstix, which quickly piled up accolades from the media there. He opened the Asian Cajun Bistro as an expansion site in 2001 and brought to it many of the same dishes.
Facing escalating real estate costs in the French Quarter, Chan moved his restaurant to Carrollton over the summer, taking up residence in the Oak Street restaurant space that was long home to the Creole soul food mainstay Zachary's and more recently to Margaux's. While Chopstix remains open in Atlanta, Chan seems always to be here, working the dining room and occasionally banging out some tunes on the grand piano in the bar.
To get a taste of the Asian Cajun Bistro at its best, start with an appetizer of fried spinach with sauted chicken and pine nuts. The spinach has the texture of Japanese nori but is sweet, and the tender diced chicken mixes well with the smooth, honey-touched nuts for an addictive dish. The crawfish spring rolls also are good, made with fresh, crunchy purple cabbage, onions, scallions and large crawfish tails in crisp, fried wrappers.
Steer clear of the tempura shrimp grits. The watery grits would not pass muster at a respectable Southern breakfast joint and the three battered shrimp were lost in Hollandaise sauce and the odd addition of a poached egg set in the center. It seemed like a strained effort to inject regional elements to the menu, as was an oyster stew that was far too salty and viscous.
Much better is the cabbage seafood soup, a spicy Korean-style kimchee of vinegar-soaked cabbage with crawfish and shrimp that all tasted pleasantly pickled and lip-smacking hot.
One of the really gratifying parts of a meal here is the way the kitchen delivers on the menu's promises of "spicy." The crawfish fried rice, for instance, is alive with hot pepper, as are entrees dubbed hot and spicy shrimp and Szechwan hot numb tong chicken. The shrimp dish, served over a "bird's nest" tangle of fried noodles, is wet with red, sticky sauce while the chicken dish is studded with red peppercorns.
Most portions are quite large and this reaches its peak with the entre soups. The chicken noodle soup, for instance, is served in a stock pot-sized bowl brimming with noodles, tempura-battered chicken that is good if quickly made soggy and a broth dominated by black pepper.
The orange duck is also plated in generous fashion with both the breast and leg, but the dark glaze painted so thickly over it all had no zing and barely registered any orange flavor. The barbecue mahi mahi was also plain and too dry, despite some promising smoky flavor on the surface of the fish.
Vegetarians can do quite well with a corner of the menu devoted to three meatless appetizers and four entrees. A good starting point is the tofu vegetable hot pot, which is two meals worth of braised tofu patties with nice, firm exterior texture, Asian greens and plenty of garlic.
The list of dinner specials is extensive and they typically are the least Asian-influenced of the dishes, with choices like steak, osso buco and lobster. One lobster dish, topping out the entre price range at $29, had the tail meat chopped into chunks, stir-fried with a lot of ginger and onions and put back into the shell. It beats boiled lobster hands down, though there was not enough of it or anything exciting to round out the dish.
Dinner prices are average for local fine dining, with most entrees between $19 and $23, but lunch is a relative bargain with a roster of specials for $10 each. Served in bento-style boxes, these adopt the standard Chinese-American lunch special format of a main dish with a side of fried rice and an egg roll, plus steamed vegetables. The sides are not extraordinary but better than the soggy standard elsewhere and the main dishes themselves are smaller portions of what must be the dinner menu's bestsellers. There are the hot and spicy chicken or shrimp, the grouper caked in fish-and-chips-like batter and striped with hot mustard and duck sauce and more conventional pork and steak, among other choices. And just in case you're not sold on the whole offbeat Asian concept, the lunchtime menu also has fried seafood po-boys.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Chef/owner Philip Chan draws from a wide array of regional Chinese cuisines and creative new American cooking at his Riverbend restaurant.