A Little Chin Music

Asia Grille
549 Prairie Center Drive, Eden Prairie; 944-4095

THE PROMINENT DISPLAYS of Betty Crocker Chinese Cookbooks (written by Ms. Chin herself) littered throughout the Asia Grille were the first omen that our experience here would be bittersweet. But that's okay; cheesy restaurants are a fact of life on this landscape and there's really no point in being precious about it. Like trashy paperbacks and strawberry jello, there's something soothingly digestible about Leeann Chin's food, even in this most recent stab at raising the culinary stakes.

The Asia Grille consists of a lavish dining room on one side and a deli-takeout service on the other. The deli counter should be familiar enough to anyone who's been to one of the ubiquitous Leeann Chin counters across town, with a few pleasant additions. The hot and sour soup ($2.25) we tried here was a letdown, bland as pudding and in distinct need of the hot pepper oil and soy sauce we generously applied.

We had much better luck with the appetizers. The Eurasian spring rolls ($2.75) are a junk food paradise, hot and oily fried spring roll wrappers filled with scads of shrimp and bubbling hot cream cheese that gushes up with every mouthful, scattered artfully with scallions. The satays (lamb and chicken) were fine, fat pieces of grilled meat on a stick marinated with sweet chilies and served with spicy peanut sauce, though perhaps not as lovely as can be drummed up elsewhere. The pot stickers were also a welcome and pleasing guest on the menu, hot and sticky and stuffed with small bits of chicken and buttery vegetables.

My friend was a bit bewildered when he opened his container of Asian tacos ($5.95), an odd creation of three soft, tortilla-like onion-pancakes stuffed with Thai barbecued chicken and accompanied by little containers of peanut sauce. The whole thing was just a little too rich, dense, and preposterous to finish, though he appreciated the notion.

Over to the main dining area, then. The room is beautifully rendered--clean and stylized in the extreme, with colorful banners streaming down to cast shadows on the sleek and ultra-contemporary furnishings. Each table is set with a carved stone full of lacquered chop sticks and glass cordials filled with hot pepper oil and soy sauce. The menu is more select and elaborate here.

A lovely and inexpensive evening can be had sipping a cocktail (there's a nice array of imported beers and specialty cocktails, including the swank White Tiger--$4.95--a tight blend of Absolut Citron vodka and freshly squeezed lemon juice) and noshing on appetizers and soups. Diners are greeted with bamboo containers of green onion pancakes and a cucumber salsa spiced up with an assortment of peppers and onions; it's a flavorful alternative to the standard before-dinner fare of bread, chips, or crispy noodles.

The immense serving of yaki soba noodles ($6.95) with barbecued pork soup we ordered to start things out was nicely presented, pretty and colorful, with bright red strips of meat splayed over with shredded carrots, bean sprouts, and snow peas. Unfortunately, it was a bit lacking in flavor. Entrées are up to the setting, including a nice Asian-style rotisserie chicken ($9.95), a generous portion of chicken marinated with five-spice powder and special seasonings slow-roasted over tea leaves, served with bowls of jasmine and brown rice and a healthy stack of carrots, water chestnuts, baby corn, and carrots. The lettuce-wrapped minced chicken ($6.95) was also divine, stir-fried with crunchy noodles, red, yellow and orange peppers, and lots of oyster sauce. For a heavier feeling, try the wok-seared duck with udon fat noodles ($8.95), a pretty amalgam topped with carrots; you won't begin to feel guilty until you uncover the greasy remains at the bottom of the plate.

As culinary adjectives go, "Asian" covers so much territory that it seems sort of useless. Ultimately, the point of restaurants like this one is simple enough: We all have those days when crispy eggrolls and deep-fried, cream cheese-filled wontons are exactly the comfort food the doctor would order.

 
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