PAN-ASIAN PERIL A “Malaysian” papaya shrimp dish.
Last week we reviewed the downtown pan-Asian restaurant Shima. While Shima arrived in Maine by way of Japan, Hawaii, and Paris, this week's pan-Asian restaurant arrives by way of Rhode Island. Kon Asian Bistro, on Brighton Avenue, replicates a successful venture from a few states south. But Kon has its own French pedigree in that it seeks to recreate the clubby atmosphere made famous by the Buddha Bar, which began in Paris before expanding to New York.
KON ASIAN BISTRO | 1140 Brighton Ave, Portland | Mon-Thurs 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat 11:30 am-11 pm; Sun 1-10 pm | Visa/MC/AmEx/Disc | 207.874.0000
For a place that is largely about performative hibachi dining and Asian kitsch, Kon is very into the Buddha. While Portland's Green Elephant honors Buddhism by serving the sort of vegetarian cuisine appropriate to a religion whose first principle is an awareness of suffering, Kon has chosen to go with a flood-lit statue of Siddhartha in front of a reflecting pool. He looks great — in fact the whole restaurant does in a funny way, with its red and yellow tones, and cloth-draped lamps. Though the parking lot was packed the main dining room was half-full. The hibachi room off to the right seemed busy and loud with the shrieks of hibachi patrons and the gongs that accompany the waitstaff's birthday performances.
The waitstaff's food-service performance is just okay. Beers and sushi were slow to arrive, and our server did not know much about some things on the menu. The menu offers many of the classic hits of Japanese, Thai, and Chinese, but also offers some more unusual dishes, particularly on the list of specials. There is only one Indian appetizer — a pancake with curry sauce — and we were probably foolhardy to try it. The thin curry looked like the sort you made with cubes in college as it dripped off the crisp, greasy pancake, and felt a bit powdery on the tongue. There was little sign of the potato and chicken the menu promised.
A lettuce wrap was more successful. The diced chicken had enough heat to work well against the coolness of the leaf, but not so much as to overwhelm the fresh basil. A tom yam soup was marred by a slightly bitter aftertaste. A shrimp tempura roll, ordered as an appetizer (but served with the entrées) was a bit overwhelmed by the glop of the creamy lobster sauce that topped it. The big shrimp were nice but the tempura got oily as it cooled.
A "Malaysian" papaya dish will not do Malaysia's reputation in Maine any favors. It was an example of where pan-Asian cooking can lead — and it wasn't pretty: gloppy, sweet, mushy, with the poor shrimp swimming in a peach-colored pudding. We expected the more typical (and appealing) shredded green papaya with a tangy sauce, rather than a super-ripe red fruit in thickened coconut milk. We also tried the hibachi, and it was not bad, though the steak was a bit spongy. The dipping sauces, one gingery and other a sweet-mild mustard wasabi, were quite nice.