Fare Minded

Pauli Moto's: Haute In Name Only

Grilled kobe steak in sweet butter soy sauce.
Grilled kobe steak in sweet butter soy sauce. (Len Spoden (703) 598-7427 - Freelance)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

What's in half a name? In the case of Pauli Moto's Asian Bistro, created by onetime "Iron Chef" and Nobu sidekick Masaharu Morimoto, hero to a generation of video foodies, the answer is a weirdly fractured menu.

Pauli Moto's, conceived in the era of the mega-mall food courts, is about half-Chinese, maybe one-quarter Japanese and the rest a sort of fishy fusion with a bit of Korean tossed in. It's not just pan-Asian, it's Poly-Moto. Anyone expecting an haute experience like that at Morimoto's Philadelphia restaurant -- indeed, anything really innovative -- is carping down the wrong mainstream.

Had Morimoto been the Chinese-cuisine champion of the "Chefs" showdowns, it would have been a tad less curious. Admittedly, the other "name" partners, Paul Ardaji Sr. and Jr., are a Hollywood producer and former P.F. Chang's executive, respectively, but even with the predominance of Chinese dishes on the menu, Morimoto's deservedly fine reputation for improvising combinations would suggest an intriguing take on modern Asian fare. However, the best mu shu pork, Mongolian beef, sweet and sour chicken and kung pao shrimp might not be enough to lure one from a nearby food court, especially at $11 or $12 a serving. And even the best dishes are problematical.

A few examples: The "Iron Chef's Beef Tenderloin 'Bi Bim Bop,' " a version of a classic Korean one-bowl meal, is supposed to be a showpiece, prepared table-side in a hot stone bowl: The raw meat cooks as it's being tossed by the waiter and gradually incorporated into the rice and greens, but there is nothing like the variety of vegetables, pickles and condiments of the traditional dish.

"Peking Style VIP Roasted Duck" resembles the original in the sense that the skin is fairly crisp and it comes with wraps and hoisin sauce, and indeed the meat is very tasty; but the fat layer beneath the skin is still obvious, the breast is carved too thickly for wrapping (the leg quarter isn't carved at all) and the pancakes are as thick as tortillas. The miso-marinated black cod is good but can be a little scant. There are congees (Chinese rice porridge), fried rice -- including the brazenly faux wasabi fried rice -- and lo mein but no Japanese udon or soba .

Pork dumplings are well stuffed and the stuffing itself as good as at most chains, but the dough is heavy and dull; they're better steamed than pan-fried, because the oil isn't hot enough to keep the dumplings from sucking up grease. (Ask for the special hot dipping sauce behind the bar.) Wok-tossed seafood in lettuce cups is good, but, ahem, much like a popular P.F. Chang's dish. Short ribs, two versions of which, with sweet miso and bourguignon style, were good bets, seem to have been taken off the menu.

What Pauli Moto's is good for, and sometimes very good for, is the sort of communal drinking and nibbling that can eat up long hours at the small Japanese neighborhood pubs called izakaya , except that instead of a small grill and perhaps a hot plate, Pauli Moto's cooks have a full kitchen, a sushi bar and a grill table.

The decor -- wide open, with curved, pale wood walls and chair backs, awnings overhead and Web-site-style promos for Morimoto morphing on high-tech screens -- is about as homogenous (and volume amplifying) as possible. Across the rear of the room are the sushi bar, the liquor bar and the grill; the dining room has booths and tables, all Western, and there are a few tables outside in the atrium.

Happy hour shows Pauli Moto's off at what is likely its best, with half-price sake and sushi at the bar. The sushi is mostly maki rolls, although there is one appetizer, the "new style sashimi" of yellow tail and salmon, that gets the trendy propane torch treatment. (The "ceviche," too, is four or five slices of sashimi layered with a spicy sauce into a martini glass, so it's hard not to imagine a phalanx of chefs slicing piles of one-size-fits-all fish.) The rolls are perfectly acceptable -- the rice is well seasoned and the rolls tight and uniform -- though most, such as spicy tuna roll, shrimp tempura roll and California roll, are pretty common to Amer-Asian restaurants. Two worth exploring are the asparagus tempura roll and the Tysons Corner roll, asparagus with chicken tempura -- chicken fingers outside the box.

The robatayaki list ( robata is the hot stone grill itself, and yaki the skewered foods) offers several good choices, notably the meaty eringi mushrooms (brushed with a sweetish kabayaki sauce, but available plain or oiled); yamaimo , the sticky Japanese mountain yam; sweet peppers; and Japanese-style chicken meatballs. Both tenderloin and "Kobe beef," really American Wagyu, are available, but this is one time when the latter is worth the extra money ($6 for a three-piece skewer to $2.50 for the tenderloin). The chunks are not only much larger but the marbled meat -- rather like those missing short ribs -- is seared perfectly to keep in the juices: The filet, which is too delicate a meat for broiling anyway, is bland by comparison.

If you want a little something to go with the skewers, try the eggplant "gratin" with miso or the sauteed snow pea leaves. Wasabi mashed potatoes you can get just about anywhere.

Pan-Asian gets panned a lot these days, for various reasons. Here it's not that the food is bad, just that it seems such a waste of talent -- a way of exploiting the fan base. (This is just the first of a planned chain.) Maybe Chef Morimoto gave the concept only half his attention as well as half his name. All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

Pauli Moto's Asian Bistro 7852L Tysons Corner Center, Tysons Corner 703-556-7777 Kitchen hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30-11, Fridays and Saturdays 11:30-midnight Prices: Appetizers $4-$10.95; entrees $9.95-$20.95 Wheelchair access: Very good

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