Cold fusion

Liberty's Asian fusion concept slips on a noodle

The soups, served in huge bowls, continued with this level of adequacy void of the remarkable. Our wok-seared beef soup--featuring, oddly, wok-boiled beef that was leathery and pale, as though it had been bleached--was served almost chilled. The broth is seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon and a little garlic and holds egg noodles, bok choy, scallions, cilantro, and large fried wonton that quickly became a soggy soup blanket. Vietnamese rice noodle soup--rice noodles and chicken (or beef) in a simple chicken stock--was riddled with dry meat and a broth that didn't get interesting until the bottom of the bowl was struck, where seemingly all of the seasonings had silted.

Other items were more uplifting. Korean beef noodles, juicy slices of grilled beef with egg noodles, bok choy, spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, cilantro, onion, and garlic oil, were rich and tasty in a savory brown sauce laced with smokiness. The spicy grilled pork, the best entree sampled, was loaded with slices of succulent, rich, marinated pork coated with sesame seeds. The meat was settled, along with cucumber and carrot, on a bed of perfectly cooked rice. The only drawback was the barely perceptible spiciness--despite the name.

Things quickly slipped back into the ho-hum, however. The pad Thai--rice noodles, shrimp, calamari, egg strips, bean sprouts, garlic, peanuts, and tender sweet shrimp in a dead peanut sauce--offered no assertive flavors, pretty unusual for a dish whose basic ingredients include chile and garlic. The tempura shrimp further developed what seems to be an unintended twist in the Liberty concept: a squandering of fresh ingredients in either inadequate or overbearing preparations. Snowpeas, broccoli, carrots, baby corn, mushrooms, green bell pepper, yellow squash, zucchini, and sweet pieces of shrimp were thwarted in a thick, orange tempura that was soggy and gummy.

But perhaps the most perplexing Liberty offering is on the short list of desserts: Annie's super sticky-rice platter with Asian custard. A mound each of purple and yellow Thai rice sweetened with coconut milk and topped with custard, this dish was so gummed, dry, and hard, it was virtually inedible.

Though the wine list is a noble effort considering the peskiness of pairing wine with Asian cuisine, it also is a little out of whack. Asian cuisines obliterate virtually every red wine you can think of, save an occasional Beaujolais or an Alsatian Pinot Noir. And the reds that aren't flattened by Asian flavor extremes become mere bystanders in the meal. Yet this list is roughly 40 percent red, while the menu cries out for a broad collection of Rieslings and GewYrztraminers (of which there are only three), especially from Alsace. In addition, a few affordable (current offerings range from $30-$55) California Chardonnays with simple varietal clarity would go a long way here.

Liberty's decor, settled in a space that was L'Ancestral years ago before it was a beer bar, is also a fusion: a merging of industrial and natural elements. Parts of it work extremely well, especially on the patio. An aluminum washtub koi pond is the focal point for this open area speckled with metal tables and chairs and greenery consisting of Japanese bamboo and herbs. It's sure to draw crowds as the weather warms.

Move just through the entrance, and you face a tall bookcase containing a selection of Asian juices, hot sauces, cookies, candy, tea, and gum, along with Liberty-monikered T-shirts and caps. The actual dining space has concrete floors and a high ceiling striped with steel beams from which horizontally positioned parasols dangle. Also dangling are gold-plated bird cages imprisoning amber Christmas lights: an odd chandelier concept for a place called Liberty.

Facing the open kitchen is a counter with a base veneered in corrugated steel and a surface of slate tiles. A handsome wood magazine rack with all sorts of hip, eclectic publications faces the six or so seats lit from above by upside-down wok chandeliers. Pseudo-shoji screens hanging from the ceiling divide some of the seating areas, and a fountain of river stone and slate, inoperable on our visits because of leaks, faces into the main dining area. It's all rather striking in its peculiar simplicity.

And the service picks up on this atmospheric tone. Though congenial, it was characterized by long waits and odd pacing. One glass of water was delivered to our table when our server first paid us a visit, while the remaining glasses were delivered with the check. Also odd: Liberty's jasmine tea is served in a tea bag slipped onto a saucer holding a cup of hot water--something you would almost never see in a strictly ethnic Asian restaurant--instead of fresh-brewed in a pot.

But this perhaps is a metaphor for the creaky execution here. While the noodle-house concept embraced by Liberty is ripe with potential, this version seemingly has its eye a bit too much on the concept instead of on the food. It exhibits little of the sophisticated agility Asian cuisines showcase through the successful orchestration of sharply drawn flavors and textures. The fusion is, quite simply, cold.

Liberty, 5631 Alta off Lowest Greenville Ave., (214) 887-8795. Open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Laotian green papaya salad $6.95
Vietnamese fresh spring rolls $5.75
Wok-seared beef soup $9.95
Vietnamese rice noodle soup $5.95
Spicy tomato linguine $8.95
Pad Thai $10.95
Korean beef noodles $11.95
Spicy grilled pork $9.95
Annie's super sticky rice platter $5.95

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