Over the last two years, Asiago's executive chef Floyd Loomis and owner Jason Driver have pushed the restaurant's menu beyond its Italian borders. Alongside its regular fair, the nearly decade-old downtown Boise eatery now serves fusion food like ginger lime prawns with red curry risotto ($21.95) Thai-talian pasta ($15.95) and chicken Morocco ($17.95).
I particularly love Moroccan food, with its spicy tangle of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African flavors. That's why I jumped at the chance to try the chicken Morocco, a chicken breast stuffed with Moroccan sausage over orzo pasta topped with olives, capers, red peppers and preserved lemon. Brined in salt and its own juices, preserved lemon is one of my favorites and a hallmark of Moroccan cuisine. With its bright, ineffable flavor, preserved lemon can transform any dish it touches.
My meal arrived as a lovely looking, vertical composition. The rice-shaped orzo formed a base for a golden, half chicken breast topped with a generous layer of minced olive tapenade and two glistening lemon slices.
Asiago's was the first restaurant I reviewed for the Idaho Statesman, nearly three-years ago to the day. Back then I wrote "the rough brick and matte gold walls, the tiled floor, the retro-Italian posters ... all worked to warm what was outside a decidedly frigid February afternoon." The place is still as pleasant. I enjoy the restaurant's casually open, elegant feel, its cozy Tuscany-meets-Napa vibe and its attentive waitstaff.
On a recent frigid February night, my first bite of chicken mingled with orzo and minced olives was just right. There was a salty richness to it all. With the second bite, I got a forkful of stuffing--more cheesy and bready than the advertised sausage suggests but good--with hints of cinnamon and allspice. By bite number three or four, I got a slice of that much anticipated lemon ... but rather than preserved lemon, it was simply grilled. Chef Loomis later informed me that the preserved stuff was chopped into the orzo, but I couldn't taste it. Nor could I taste the buttery bite of good olive oil. Without those signature flavors, the meal was muted--let's say pleasantly passable--but lacking the high notes that can make Moroccan food sing.
I appreciate Asiago's attempt at dishes from beyond Italy, but in going global, I wonder if it's also losing a little of that oh-so-Italian knack for simple, singular ingredients.