March 4, 2004

Finger Lake'n Good

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Aurora Street, between State and Seneca in downtown Ithaca, might as well be called Restaurant Row. Madeline’s Restaurant, Viva Cantina, Simeon’s, Hal’s Delicatessen, and the Mahogany Grill sit proudly beside smaller pizzerias and bars on the strip. Three years ago, Giovanni’s, a fancy Italian place once featured on cable’s Food Network, was a cornerstone in this restaurant family. The spot was vacant until Asia Cuisine opened its doors to the hungry public last year. Riding down Seneca, you can’t miss the green banner, and customers can be seen inside the large windows from the early afternoon until evening. What are all these folks eating?

The easy answer is: one of over 100 menu items! The lunch and diner menus feature Korean food, though “Chinese-style” dishes are also offered. Lunch is especially affordable. Ch’am Gae Wa Dak Go Gi, described simply as “Chicken with special sesame sauce,” has a wonderfully nutty flavor. Like most things on the menu, it is served with steamed rice. A Korean restaurant wouldn’t be complete without spice. To help the typical American diner, the spicy items are outlined in red and one can choose from a range of heat. Too bad that the Dak Go Gi Wa Peanuts, Chicken in hot spicy sauce with peanuts, was far too hot for me, even at the mild setting and with a tall glass of water. It must be my untrained palate.

Comfortable chairs and laminate top tables fill the small space. Tea cups sit next to water glasses and spoons lie next to “Wang’s” chopsticks. Bring your chopstick skills — forks and knives are not offered, perhaps to preserve the authenticity. Early ’90s beats with Korean vocals play softly over the speakers. Sometimes, the music is punctuated by arguments between the staff. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but they usually sound upset. Fortunately, they’re very kind to customers, if not too soft-spoken.

The dinner menu offers fantastic potential, but the kitchen’s consistency is spotty. One time, my General Tso’s chicken was tender, another time it was stringy. The miso soup came out greasy on one visit, and perfectly clear on another. The spring roll arrives crisp but with a sweet and sour sauce gelatinous enough to be an ode to cornstarch. On the upside, wonton soup has a delicate, tea-like essence. It is served with tiny dishes of condiments like kimchi, Korean pickled cabbage. Asia Cuisine’s kimchi is mild, but appropriately appetite inducing. The Pepper SoGoGi, Beef with green pepper and onion, reminded me of childhood Chinese take-out.

When I asked my server, Mia, to describe the Pearl Chicken, she searched desperately for the words. After rereading the menu to me several times, she called to a fellow employee in another language. He brought over a photo album of all the dishes on their menu. The Pearl Chicken with “corn and peas with our special sauce” looks a lot like a thick chicken soup. The photograph didn’t really encourage me to try it. BolGoGi, “thin sliced marinated tender beef,” is also served with special sauce. In fact, a lot of things are served “with a special sauce,” which made me wonder if all of their different sauces were special, or if they served everything with the same special sauce. The person in charge of typing their menu needs to be a bit more creative in describing these complex dishes to non-Asian diners.

Perhaps I’m not familiar with modern Korean cuisine, but some menu items seemed odd to my palate. Omelet Rice, described as “Fried rice enveloped in egg-pancake with ketchup,” combines French, American, and Asian cuisines. Their Sam Sun Bokum Bop is a Korean interpretation of Chinese fried rice, which seems to mean that they don’t add soy sauce. Chicken with Plum Sauce is my favorite dish on the menu. Tender chicken is fried, and then tossed with crunchy bamboo shoots, bright green peppers, and sweet scallions. A deep red plum sauce combines the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour — the trademark flavor balance of Asian cuisine. If only the stew wasn’t served in a pool of peanut oil, it would be perfect.

What meal at an American-friendly, Asian restaurant wouldn’t be complete without a fortune cookie? Clich