We Marylanders have gotten to the point where we don't expect much from our Asian restaurants. So many of them are as interchangeable as their names. Then along comes the Asean Bistro; and like it or not, you have to give restaurateur Jesse Wong and his staff credit for trying something different.
Actually this is a very likable restaurant, although you may not like the name. "Asean" (pronounced "AH-see-an") isn't a misspelling; it's the acronym for Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This is a restaurant with a lot of airs; but you know, that's what makes it fun.
Like a hundred other Asian restaurants, the Asean Bistro is located in a strip mall; once inside, however, you'll notice a difference right away. For one thing, there's a white cocktail piano and live music. And forget the traditional Chinese red color scheme with dragons: The dining room is divided into a number of cozy areas, done predominantly in green with tropical touches.
Wong once owned the respected Hunan Manor in Columbia; his staff comes variously from Mr. K's in Washington and restaurants in Taiwan and China's Sichuan province. With this worldly a crew, it's no surprise that there's more than pork fried rice on the menu.
The tables are set with knives, forks, lacquered chopsticks and wooden chopstick holders. Order tea and you get a fragrant jasmine blend. Order wine by the glass, and the waiter wheels a cart filled with bottles to the table and has you taste your choice before he pours a full glass. Whiskey sours lack an orange slice and maraschino cherry but arrive with a real orchid.
Who knows how much of this will survive after reality sets in (reality being that so many customers will come in looking for standard American Chinese dinners). But while it lasts, enjoy it.
We had a tough time deciding on appetizers, with choices like sesame seatangle, honey crispy walnut and vegetarian goose on the menu. I settled on "Chef Liu's Vegetables in Soothing Lettuce," the carrots, mushrooms, water chestnuts and other vegetables finely chopped and fragrant with a spicy sauce. With a bit of table-side showmanship, the waiter places them in iceberg lettuce leaves. You eat these tasty morsels with your fingers like tacos.
Even better were supple won tons filled with minced chicken, shrimp and scallops in a red sauce spiked with chili and soy. The only dud: a wonderful-sounding "chicken cream puff" that tasted more like chicken pot pie made with a steamed bun.
Our waiter couldn't quite believe that we were in an experimental mood, so he tried to steer us away from "Quadruple Flavor Shrimp" and toward shrimp with garlic sauce by telling us our choice was a cold dish. The huge shrimp were indeed cold, but so what? They came with raspberries, strawberries and orange slices and four dipping sauces ranging from something that tasted like sweetened salad dressing to a tangy soy-based concoction with the zing of wasabi.
Our waiter approved, however, of our ordering the boneless tea duck served with steamed buns. The tender, moist meat edged with crisp skin was wonderful, with just the faintest flavor of tea. (All these dishes, by the way, are garnished with flowers and leaves and fruit to within an inch of their lives.)
Slices of braised veal chops Thai-style were succulent, bathed in a fiery brown sauce with steamed greens alongside. Only crab meat fried rice, presented in a giant lotus leaf "bowl," had more looks than substance.
Don't let the dishes we ordered scare you off if such things aren't to your taste. The Asean Bistro offers some traditional favorites like egg rolls and lo mein. But desserts are decidedly untraditional for an Asian restaurant, with choices like a pecan tartlet, cheesecake and an orange "pie" that was actually a mini-Bavarian -- all decent if not particularly notable. Or you can wait for the fortune cookies, which came with as ornate a presentation as the rest of our meal. They were accompanied by Peppermint Patties and citrus-fruit gels!
Where: 8775 Centre Park Drive, Columbia
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers: $2.95-$6.95; main courses: $8.95-$26
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Pub Date: 01/24/99