When Azia, an Asian fusion night spot known for its cranberry cream cheese wontons and fruity cocktails, closed in 2010, fans mourned the loss of this unique piece of Twin Cities dining history.
When Eat Street Buddha Kitchen and Lounge opens on Monday, the old home of Thom Pham's Azia will make a play for those fuzzy good-time memories with sushi, craft cocktails, and those familiar cranberry cream cheese wontons -- this time with a new man behind the curtain.
The new owners have brought on executive sushi chef Tony Gambucci, last seen locally at Stella's in Uptown. Before coming on at Eat Street, Gambucci traveled to San Diego, where he was also working as a sushi chef. He was lured to return by Buddha Kitchen's owner Mike Tupa, and the opportunity to work again with chef Grant Halsne, who was also in the kitchen at Stella's.
With that team, it's no surprise that many of the new spot's appetizers and dishes are seafood-heavy. But many are also distinctly Americanized. The Bad Karma Roll, for instance, is stuffed with spicy tuna, avocado, cream cheese, and crab, wrapped in tempura batter, and fried. A Buddha Roll of crab, halibut, and salmon in a nori wrap brings out more traditional Japanese flavors.
Other appetizers include gently battered calamari rings drizzled in a garlic chili-spiked aioli, and the aforementioned cream cheese wontons mixed with cranberries and red curry, and served with a sweet Thai chili sauce.
The restaurant space is dominated by the bar, which spans nearly the entire main dining room. Guests can sip their cocktails while watching the sushi action, or snuggle into a row of intimate two-person booths along the wall of windows facing 26th Street. There is another dining room off the bar and a third at the back of the restaurant.
The cocktail program was crafted by a mixologist brought in from the East Coast. Some drinks were created from ingredients sourced from nearby farmers' markets, such as the bright green Sweet Pea, a combination of Prairie Organic vodka, edamame, and sugar snap pea puree, mixed with sweet lemonade.
Many of the drinks boast clever names, like the Violet Beauregard (blueberry vodka, velvet falernum, and creme de violette) and the 50 Shades of Earl Grey (Earl Grey tea-infused gin with Lord Grey peach preserve and sparkling rosé). Prices range from $9 to $11 for the specialty drinks. They also serve wine, beer, and a selection of sake.
A view of the busy bar from the dining room
The menu also moves well beyond sushi and small plates. The Buddha salad comes topped with chicken slices, candied walnuts, and pickled carrots in a sweet, creamy dressing; the Mongolian Beef Tenderloin offers a hearty red-meat option; the scallops entree is served with fingerling potatoes, thinly sliced brussel sprouts, and garlic tossed in a togarashi beurre blanc. A number of gluten-free and vegetarian options are also clearly marked on the menu.
Sweetly dressed chicken salad
Scallops in togarashi beurre blanc
Owner Mike Tupa describes the road to opening Buddha Kitchen as a short one; he only came up with the concept a few months ago. Tupa is a successful restaurateur, and is also the owner of several Wild Bill's "sports saloons," located mostly in the suburbs.
Can Asian fusion be revived in this space? Can they compete for drinking dollars with their craft-cocktail shaking neighbors? We'll find out soon.
Eat Street Buddha Kitchen and Lounge will be open daily for dinner until 2 a.m., with a weekend brunch service coming soon.