Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Sushi
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, April 20, 2003

Oh, to be a design critic for a little while! The last six months in particular have been filled with sights for sore eyes, as I've found myself in restaurants that pulse with energy and radiate personality, be they small neighborhood spots or major investments in central locations. In dining rooms across the board, Washington is looking sexier than ever.

Yet, the meals in a few of these newcomers leave me curious to know more about their interior decorators than the people cooking in them. It's as if the owners had lavished all their time and money on creating an inviting atmosphere and figured a nice setting would be sufficient.

It's not.

From the start, Bambu, a dressy spinoff of the nearby Chen's carryout, seduces its visitors with a clean, spare appearance. Buffed concrete floors yield to walls in colors of cream and salmon, while seemingly several trees' worth of pale wood find their way into the chairs and cabinets that line the room. Side-by-side sushi counters, with a curve of stools here and another there, look onto either an exposed kitchen or a bar (as of press time, however, no booze was being poured).

By day, light pours into the room from expansive front windows; after sunset, the place gets so dark, diners can be seen leaning toward the votive candles to read the menu. Rice-paper screens float overhead, a clever way to obscure the industrial pipes that crisscross the ceiling. Those who flock here seem grateful for another dining option in an area where few exist. At any given mealtime, the tables might host a mix of stroller brigades, couples, baseball-capped guys and gracefully aging ladies whose studied coifs and smooth skin suggest a serious beauty regime.

The menu spends its time in the Far East, nodding to Japan with sashimi, China with kung pao shrimp and Thailand with curries and pad thai, among other dishes. Four visits over the past month have taught me that while no single destination is better than another, soups tend to be a safe bet, chicken is better avoided, and seafood shows the kitchen at its finest.

A vegetable spring roll, generous with cabbage and carrot threads, crackles when you bite into it; cleanly fried, it's as greaseless as can be. The sushi choices run to the usual fish -- tuna, yellowtail and salmon, among others -- and they, too, make for good beginnings; the fish is generously apportioned and of good flavor.

But signs of trouble surface early. Order the chicken satay, for instance, and out come four pieces of chicken that are so big, their skewers actually bend under their weight. Difficult to eat, the chicken is also dull, and the bland dipping sauce doesn't help; it comes off like library paste sprinkled with peanuts. Other than their bright red coloring, "BBQ" spare ribs show no signs of having been cooked that way. Instead, the meat tastes steamed. And the heavy fried oysters are all about texture -- crunch followed by a soft center -- with absolutely zero seasoning.

So the soups are a welcome surprise. The most interesting is subtle with pumpkin, whose smooth texture is complemented by bits of crunchy coconut. But seafood soup is appealing, too, with small shrimp, bites of carrot and threads of egg white adding flavor and color.

After my initial success with that soup, I gravitated toward seafood. Generally, I was rewarded. Once it was by pearly shrimp and walnuts, brightened with baby corn and strips of red bell pepper, bound in a clear sauce. Another time, salt-crusted squid and scallops, animated with hot green chilies, vanished within minutes of arriving at my table.

Among the handful of noodle dishes, "sweet and spicy" egg noodles tossed with ground pork and bean sprouts live up to their promise, with a pleasing, vinegar-like tang.

Several dishes taste as if a pastry chef had been recruited to make them. The shocking-yellow sauce meant to be poured over an entree of lemon chicken is a ringer for lemon pie filling, hold the meringue. And a vegetable dish called "crispy eggplant" delivers thin slices of eggplant in glassy, caramel-colored coats. It's pretty, if achingly sweet. Peking duck, bland meat beneath oddly airy skin, suffers from the blahs (and the accompanying pancakes could be burrito wrappers, they're so big). Orange beef is just okay.

The uneven state of the cooking at Bambu is too often matched by the servers, some of whom have so little command of the English language that just making a reservation over the telephone becomes a trial. The waiters' technique leaves something to be desired, too. At one meal, a waitress scraped the leftovers from our appetizer plates onto a tray she held above the table -- then returned the dirty plates to their respective owners. Miss Manners, where are you?

Following dinner one night, I cracked open the fortune cookie that came with my bill and read the following: "Appearances are often deceiving." For once, a fortune cookie that spoke the truth.