There was a time when Chinese restaurants abounded in this area. Granted, they still exist in storefronts, specializing in carryout. But many dine-in Chinese restaurants these days have re-invented themselves to include a wide range of culinary genres, not “just” Chinese.
One such place is Asian Palace Restaurant & Bar in Hickory Ridge. Owner Feng Liu opened his doors last July, with a menu that features Chinese, Japanese, Thai and even American cuisines (rack of lamb with mashed potatoes is listed under the house specialties.) Liu calls it fusion, and so it is.
As to decor, it seems to fuse Zen and feng shui for a result that’s charmingly minimalist. A water curtain divides the foyer from the two dining areas, one of which features a sushi bar. The water image continues in the curtains and the silvery vinyl seats at the booths along the side of the main dining room. Mahogany-finished tables are bare-topped, with a single votive candle at each.
This serene setting acts as an ideal palette for the lovely food presentations here, no matter which style of Asian cuisine you choose.
Although there are Buffalo wings in the appetizer section and grilled steak among the house specialties, we opted for favorite Asian dishes.
What helps set the Asian Palace apart from others of its kind -- besides the fact that the kitchen seems to be able to handle the various cuisines with equal authenticity -- is the attention paid to plate garnish, almost as if the sushi chef had a hand in designing how all the food is served.
The oyster tempura ($11) presentation featured colorful greens, lemons and cherries to add color to the golden brown seafood -- really crispy outside, and moist and tender inside.
Also from the starter section, our non-seafood eater chose the Deluxe Roll ($5). Like an egg roll, this treat was stuffed with fried chicken, mushrooms, carrots, cabbage and clear noodles.
Matsuri roll ($14), from the specialty roll section, was a generous creation featuring lightly crisped tempura-style lobster wrapped in pink seaweed, laved with eel sauce and topped with a plenty of diced raw toro -- deep red, meltingly tender tuna. The roll’s wonderful textures teased the tongue, as fresh and lovely as spindrift, just as all sushi should be. In a word: unbelievable.
In the main
Two diners in our party opted for the comfort of noodle dishes as their main courses. Another chose the stimulation of Thai-style curry. And the fourth diner stuck to the appetizer areas, choosing three lighter dishes to round out her meal.
Pad Thai ($12/chicken) was a charmer. Served up in a crispy, edible “basket” (think taco salad), the ample supply of slightly sweet, slightly spicy noodles featured plenty of chicken, veggies, crushed peanuts and cilantro sprigs.
And drunken noodles ($12) also comforted. This dramatic presentation featured wide, flat al dente noodles providing textural contrast to tender-chewy beef, onions, fragrant fresh basil and personable chili peppers.
Everybody’s idea of comfort differs, of course. For one of our spice lovers, Penang Curry ($14/beef) from the House Specialty section seemed just the thing on a chilly evening. The Thai treatment of this heated stew featured tender/chewy beef cubes, potatoes, diced tomato and red onion, and prince mushroom squares, all done up in a spicy Thai peanut sauce. By the by, we hadn’t run across prince mushrooms before. They are very chewy, almost rubbery. Talk about texture!
Our fourth taster opted for appetizer-type selections as her main course. Miso soup ($2) was tummy warming, with plenty of tofu and Chinese cabbage, although it was kind of salty.
Seaweed salad ($6) was just as it should be -- two-tone, texturally interesting, featuring cherry tomato halves with the seaweed and ample sesame seeds.
The chicken lettuce wraps ($6, enough for several wraps) were like low-cal Chinese-style fajitas. The iceberg lettuce was impeccably fresh and crisp and ready to stuff with tender, juicy chicken, green and red peppers, crispy chow mein style noodles and fresh cilantro. A sweet soy sauce drizzle finished off this fun finger food.
At Asian Palace, the lovely setting, the even more lovely (and delicious) food and the solicitous service all combine to make you feel that the slightly higher prices here are well worth it. The Asian Palace is probably the most interesting Asian “fusion” eatery we’ve visited in a very, very long time.
Asian Palace Restaurant & Bar, 10801 Hickory Ridge Road, Columbia. 410-772-8888