Rice Contemporary Asian Cuisine isn't one of those neon-lit Asian dives with sticky tables and glistening pictures of food on the walls.
Sa-Wad-Dee Thai owners Toffee Dullaphan and Fon Tavijaroen decked out Eagle's former River Rock Ale House with shiny gold walls, tasteful murals and colorful hanging lanterns that scatter fireflies of light around the room. And the food matches the vibe--the elegantly plated pan-Asian fare fuses flavors from Japan, Korea, India, Thailand, China and Vietnam.
While some might cringe at the words "pan-Asian" or "fusion"--envisioning the careless bastardization of global cuisines to satisfy the American palate's penchant for novelty--Rice's menu isn't a melting pot mess. Items largely stick to their national origins: Indian chicken tandoori shares menu space with Japanese chicken tonkatsu and General's chicken. More adventurous dishes include whole fried tilapia in tangy chili sauce, tofu kimchi fried rice or duck curry with lychee, tomato, pineapple and basil.
The vegetarian Buddha noodle ($12.99) had a persistent heat, with crisp bamboo shoots, slivers of green onion and chopped peanuts, floating in a red curry coconut broth. Cubes of tofu, spears of snappy asparagus and a quail egg bobbed in the bowl, entangled in a slithering pile of rice noodles. Unlike some of its strip mall Asian cousins, Rice's veggies weren't canned and the presentation was artful without being pretentious.
The Korea Bulgogi Beef ($17.99) was equally lovely to look at, but faltered in the flavor department. A thinly sliced pile of sugary beef was served atop bell peppers and onions on a cast iron fajita plate that, sans sizzle, seemed more showy than serviceable. A side bowl contained a mound of rice, a pile of cilantro, shredded carrots and a couple spears of romaine, while a condiment tray boasted kimchi, searing hot chilis and a sweet Korean chili paste.
Our server said that some diners opt to assemble the dish in lettuce wrap form, while others dump the various components into a bowl and give it a stir. My date chose the latter, which left him longing for a tangy squeeze of lime and a glug of soy as the generic, too-sweet beef sauce saturated the meal. The dish needed too many tweaks to justify its steep price tag.
As our server dropped off the check, she mentioned something interesting: Rice hired three chefs from Thailand to run the kitchen, and another is on the way from Japan to roll out the restaurant's sushi program soon.
So while the spot might lack the seedy, authentic vibe of a strip mall Asian dive, its kitchen has the potential to turn out legit Asian fare. Here's hoping they don't dial down the heat (or ratchet up the sweet) too much to please local palates.