FORKED RIVER - At first glance, we would have reported every surface inside the Pan Asia restaurant in Forked River had been painted black. It wasn't until one of the servers - dressed in black - closed the black wooden blinds to keep out the last rays of sunlight, that we noticed dark brown wood, plum, and rust colors in strategic spots around the room.
Food and design often are not about what first catches the eye, but about the nuances discovered when digging a little deeper. We wondered if a restaurant attempting to turn out Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cuisines from the same kitchen could achieve the nuances necessary to carry it off as well as it had done with the decor.
Hot tea seemed like a civilized way to relax and begin our meal. Tropical green ($3.25) was one of several types of tea available by the pot. The menu described it as dragon-well green tea, young hyson, meaning the name of the tea and the fact that it was made from younger, smaller leaves. Whether by the power of suggestion or by dint of a well-tuned palate, we could taste the flavors of pineapple and citrus from the menu description. Served from an interesting cast iron tea pot into ceramic, sake-size cups, we left it to future visits to sample the Yamamoto green tea, sweet ginger peach, or honeybush caramel teas.
The Pan Asia sampler ($11.95) seemed a good way to introduce ourselves to the varied styles of the menu. The live fire on a black, cast-iron, hibachi many restaurants call a Pu-Pu platter was more for show, with everything already cooked to temperature. But as items began to cool down, you could hold them by their bamboo skewer and run them through the flame for a quick reheat. Two of each item lets both diners sample everything without arguing over who had what. We liked the red glazed spare ribs the best; they were tender and meaty with a sweet coating that held on to the pork. Yakitori chicken was marinated in teriyaki sauce and the grilled beef on a stick was garnished with a chunk of pineapple and that culinary oddity, a Maraschino cherry. Shrimp and vegetable spring rolls, Gyoza dumplings, and fried, crispy crab wontons with a sweet chili sauce finished the list.
Wor Shu duck ($12.95) consisted of a deboned roasted half duckling over a basic stir fry of vegetables, carrots, onions, and mushrooms in a sauce tasting of soy and five spice seasoning. The skin was blackened - rather than crisped - in places, the result of resting too long under the tanning bed of the kitchen, the high powered salamander used for browning. From the Thai specialties, we chose the shrimp in Thai red curry ($14.95). Large, stir fried shrimp were combined with snow peas, red bell pepper, and asparagus in a red curry sauce mild enough for the average American palate. Red curry is typically on the hot and spicy side of the spectrum with many undercurrents of garlic, shallot, galangal, or ginger. This version was good but lacked any real personality of its own.
For dessert, we sampled the banana tempura ($4.95), slices of banana that were batter dipped and deep fried, then served with a drizzle of caramel and vanilla sauce. Maybe the bananas themselves did not have enough natural sweetness, but even with the sauces, the expected sweetness fell flat. We might have to revise our theory that everything tastes better deep fried.
The menu lists appetizers under the heading 'starters/small plates.' Sushi and sashimi are listed separately. They are turned out by a sushi chef behind a black bar with five seats for a close up view of the chef at work.
Tables were lacquered a shiny black, with a minimalist approach to table settings and decor in play. Service, too, was mostly from the school of being seen and not heard; efficient and unobtrusive.
An enjoyable part of going to ethnic restaurants is sampling different spices and styles from around the world. But at Pan Asia, the cuisine already is toned down, presumable to adapt to local palates. While some dishes are marked as spicy on the menu, the kitchen can adapt to personal taste. So why not start off authentic, then let the customer decide on spice levels?
New age music played throughout our meal. While background music is an important part of the total picture, in this case, providing a calm setting so the diner can focus on the food, new age music can put some of us to sleep. Its a fine line.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor Felicia Compian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.