I uneasily take in my surroundings, looking for clues as to where and when I might be. Paula Abdul is blasting overhead. I make a mental checklist of everything needed for a late '80s culinary hotspot. Red and black décor? Check. Attractive Asian hostess? Check. Lychee-tinis? Check. Menu of sushi/Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese/Indian/American/pan-Asian flavors? Check. Wasabi mashed potatoes? Well, no, there's none of those – but there is a wasabi-crusted steak! Close enough.
The 10-foot golden Buddha in the center of the dining room – flown in by Catherall from Thailand – has nothing particularly '80s about it, but it fits with the era's disconcerting ostentation.
I would expect all this from Catherall. But I was also expecting exciting food from chef William Sigley (who previously blindsided me at Aquaknox, where I'd expected mediocre food and was happily surprised by his "global water cuisine," whatever that means).
But Sigley seems to be flexing far less culinary muscle here. Offerings are broken up into sushi, dim sum, and the standard poultry/seafood/meat entrees. Very little jumps out as unexpected. The dim sum includes dumplings of various flavors and quality. I was excited by the edamame dumplings in sweet sherry soy broth, but was met with an unpleasant pasty filling lacking oomph, and a gummy wrapper. Lobster and shrimp wontons had great fresh seafood flavor in the filling, but the wrappings were stiff. Pan-fried pork pot stickers fared better – perhaps the particular wrappers Aja's kitchen uses benefit from time over direct heat.
Chinese buns show up a couple of places on the menu, and when they're fresh they're awesome. Appearing on a crispy, juicy, addictive roast duck entree, the soft, pancake-like rounds serve as the perfect foil to sweet caramelized duck fat and rich meat. Another night I had them from the dim sum menu with bbq pork, and found them gluey and unappetizing.
Thai offerings include a whole snapper, fried, cut off the bone and served in a heap over "spicy Thai chili sauce," which actually tasted more like a sweet Penang curry. Curries here in general could use more heat and complexity. They've merged in my memory, leaving no individual impressions.
Some of the muddle of the menu comes through in service issues – places are set with chopsticks, but when an order of lamb vindaloo (tender lamb and nice veggies in a slightly tepid vindaloo) came to the table I wondered how to eat it. I was given a serving spoon and rice, and left with the option to eat it out of the bowl with the oversized spoon or put it on the plate and eat it with chopsticks. Indian food with chopsticks, while not the worst problem in the world, seems a bit silly, and is a good metaphor for a lot of what's wrong with Aja. I wonder if Sigley had the opportunity to focus on one cuisine, the flavors might be clearer, bolder, more arresting.
By the middle of my first visit to Aja, my dining companion and I were taking bets on what we might find on the dessert menu. Green tea crème brulee? Molten chocolate cake with ginger ice cream? Lychee parfait? Instead, we were presented with the most imaginative part of the menu. Adorable Japanese donuts – bite-sized, hot, light, and covered in crunchy sugar – come with tangy passion fruit dipping sauce. The young coconut, filled with creamy coconut ice cream, was also a hit. OK, there was a mango parfait, but the balance of creamy and sweet, topped with tapioca balls and blueberries, made me forgive its cliché.
Is the overall cliché of Aja as forgivable? That's debatable. What it comes down to is that most of the dishes at Aja are available in cheaper and tastier versions at other restaurants. Food here is safe and tame, traits not inherent anywhere in authentic Asian cooking. Aja is an amusing blast from the past, but mostly it makes me thankful for the authentic ethnic and post pan-Asian food easily found elsewhere in town.