THE CREATORS of Bethesda's Bistro Asiatique obviously spent a lot of money on decor (as they are a little too fond of pointing out). The entire restaurant looks as if it's been built around one of those Chinese wedding beds: lacquered wood fretwork and good luck disks; red upholstery with gold and black calligraphy gold foil ceiling; long, white silks hanging like lanterns; loungey banquettes and lots of pillows, with slate underfoot and splashes of what, given its trendy bar list, can only be described as apple-martini green. It has a water wall behind the bar that rarely works (not unusual) and smaller fountains that do. It even has glass doors etched with a Kublai Khan-style emperor and a noblewoman (perhaps) for the restroom doors.
Well, as they used to say, handsome is as handsome does.
Bistro Asiatique specializes in fusion of the all-in style, which sometimes leads to a busyness or fussiness in the presentation; many of the dishes have a wrap or a wonton or a tempura flourish, not all of which make valuable contributions. (Disconcertingly often, there are supposed to be so many things on a plate that one or another goes missing.) Chef Dennis Friedman is big on promoting his resume -- he has passed through the kitchens of Kinkead's and Citronelle, and perhaps more to the fusion point, French neoclassicist Daniel Boulud and Honolulu's Pacific Rim fusion pioneer Alan Wong -- and he's clearly been paying close attention. But he is only beginning to appreciate something the best Asian chefs have known for centuries: when to stop. After all, Confucius recommended "everything in moderation" long before Julia Child.
Bistro Asiatique makes a vivid first impression, not just with the flashy decor but with the little amuses that emerge with admirable regularity. Several of the first courses, especially the tried and true, are very good. Tempura tuna roll is one of the best things on the menu, a more American-size portion than the Nobu creation that began the craze a few years ago. It's a full portion of tuna, wrapped in nori, lightly battered and just seared, served as a flower of sliced petals rather than cigar-shaped; and the yellow miso-mustard dressing is first-rate. (There is also a pepper-crusted tuna steak listed as an entree, but surely it can't be any larger.)
The "Kobe beef poke pines" appetizer is a beef version of one of Wong's signature items, ground beef balls supplied with fried wonton spines and surrounded by nicely ripe avocado. Like all those Kobe burgers, it seems a waste of tender beef to grind and cook it, but, hey, it's a trend. The crab cake is more like a molded crab salad, which is meant as a compliment, and the sauce, rather like honey mustard, is a nice change.
On the other hand, although the cashew-crusted calamari is not a bad idea and is cleverly offset by a tangy-melony papaya dipping sauce, the frying oil wasn't hot enough, and the squid was greasy and held the smell of the grease. "Shrimp spoons" are described as marinated shrimp stuffed with salmon mousse paired with a lobster medallion; it's a concept, but the shrimp were bland, the mousse added nothing and the lobster was AWOL.
Salads are a particularly good bet, and one should expect to be quite full after eating them. The house salad, which has bits of daikon and baby radish, plus goat-cheese-stuffed wonton purses, is served on a platter, not a bowl. Similarly, the Thai beef salad, tangy with lemon and ginger and a hoisin vinaigrette, is a hearty and perfectly executed meal.
Yucca-wrapped salmon with Thai basil mousse and sake flan is an intriguing concept, though it needs tweaking: The fish was corseted into too thick a roll, sort of overwhelming the mouth; the mousse, though quite nice, tasted more like spring peas; and once again a major element, this time the flan, was absent. (There's nothing wrong in changing a recipe or running out of something, but the wait staff should be told to mention it.) More weirdly, the salmon was crowned with a bit of curly endive crusted with salt, as was endive on a second plate; if it was meant as condiment, it was drastically mishandled.
The duck dish is another showy bit that would be fine with practice: a duet of breast and a "drumstick" made of confit stuffed in (another) fried wonton rolled into a cone. The orange-passion fruit glaze was very good, as was the confit itself, but too much of the fat layer had been removed before searing, rendering the breast chewy.
Chicken francaise, a poker hand's spread of pounded and breaded slices of breast, was also almost fine -- again, the saute pan wasn't quite hot enough, so the breading was more buttered than toasted, so to speak, and trying to get the color right had exposed the meat to a moment's too much heat -- and the ginger spaezle were nondescript in the extreme.
One of the best dishes on the menu is also one of the simplest: Pan-seared Chilean sea bass, so tender and moist it might have been butter-braised instead, proved that the poor Patagonian toothfish ought not to be charred like a beefsteak.
The "lobster fricassee," however, is a bad joke on the customer and suspiciously like a little private slap at Friedman's predecessor, who had imported the dish from his former kitchen at La Ferme, where that buttery and creamy dish is a house staple. Friedman's reworked version may well involve, as the menu promises, 21/2-pound lobster (and at $42, it had better), but only a small amount of it is worth the effort. It's no longer a fricassee at all, but something like a halfhearted stir-fry: The lobster had been chopped into pieces of various handiness and lightly battered, then overcooked so that the toughened meat clung even harder to its shell.
Bistro Asiatique is promising, without doubt, but there are still a lot of details to be worked out, and maybe just too many details altogether. Hyper is as hyper does, too.