Slam dunk

Pacific Rim's odd shots are nothing but net

At first glance, Chow Thai Pacific Rim is far too exotic for the flat, concrete Plano landscape. But there it is, parked in a strip mall off the Tollway with a Signature Kroger (I think this means they sell caviar in a full range of Day-Glo colors) and a McDonald's across from a stretch of land destined to become an industrial park or a development for Plano tract mansions. It's chic and spacious, well arranged and varied. It's even a little edgy, a little tongue-in-cheek, though I'm still trying to figure out how specifically. The curvaceous bar area with a bar top made of stained concrete (which matches the floor) looks like a colorful topographic map. It's separated from the dining area with a screen made of chain mail. How many Plano mansions use chain mail as a decorative element? (Maybe we don't want to know.)

Chow Thai Pacific Rim has a natty little entrance chamber, a kind of acclimation zone to help your body make the transition from the strip-mall wasteland that Planoans have turned into high culture and enter this Pacific edge. A host stand covered in finely dimpled metal is perched in front of a shelf, a little sanctuary with an incense burner, Asian statues, and dishes with oranges resting in them. Above is a huge etched glass porthole that looks out over the dim-sum bar--kind of a runt sushi bar--with more stained concrete surface and tall rattan barstools. Each place setting is a brightly colored triangular plate with a tightly rolled napkin perched vertically in the plate and a pair of brightly colored chopsticks poking out of the napkin folds.

Chow Thai Pacific Rim doesn't serve sushi yet; it doesn't have the requisite permits. But it does have two or three rolls, sans raw fish. Pacific Rim rolls ($5)--with a core of fresh mango, basil, and asparagus in a rice sheath speckled with sesame seeds--were delicious, mingling the assertive pungency of the basil with the gentle exotic zest of mango. The only drawback to these tight little roll sections was that they were served warm.

Yet Pacific Rim does serve raw fish. Ahi tartare ($12) with lemongrass-infused tuna dotted with bright green wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe) arrived as three small silos of ground flesh, rising maybe an inch and a half from the plate's surface. These nubs were arranged around a pair of sesame crackers roosting on their edges and pushed together in the shape of a T. Red ribbons of pepper sauce wormed near the edges of the triangular plate. At the points, leaves of endive, some with curled, browning edges, were placed with strips of red pepper in the leaf cup. It was a thing of beauty, the kind of beauty a Signature Kroger must represent to someone who has taken leave of a Plano mansion to go forage. But the tuna was a little stringy and not robustly fresh.

Miso soup ($4) was phenomenal, and nowhere near the minimalist creation found in other Japanese restaurants. Packed with shards of shiitake, bok choy, noodles, tofu, and carrots, the soup is hearty, a sort of Japanese minestrone. Yet it merged seamlessly, with light, sweet undertones from the broth. This soup is generous yet deft--among the best ways to spend four dollars in Plano, or anywhere else for that matter.

Chow Thai Pacific Rim is a mishmash of Asian influences cajoled with...God knows what. There are things on the menu that are downright American--even Southern, if you squint. This isn't surprising given that the manpower in the kitchen includes Executive Chef Kenny Mills (Ellington's Southern Chop House in Fort Worth) and Eric Wallace (Il Solé). What is surprising is the number of thrilling risks they're willing to take, making this menu a good match for the decor, though not everything on the menu works as exquisitely as the ambience. Smoked pork chops with purple Peruvian mashed potatoes and char tomato sauce ($18) could have been swiped from Star Canyon, at least in theory. The flesh was tasty and achieved a perfect doneness--that is, the core was allowed to blush. But that char tomato sauce, though zesty with a husky flavor, was a bit too runny and soaked the mashed potatoes mercilessly, kind of turning them into a new species of instant breakfast (Wallace says the dish was dropped).

Hoisin-marinated chicken ($16) was a near miss, a seeming stab at blending Chinese with American Southern that was more a messy collision. Two pieces of chicken breast were stacked atop a little stepping-stone-like platform of yam slices and bok choy swimming in a puddle of ginger-corn sauce that had the color and consistency of something the Gerber company might have strained and put in little jars. The yams were billed as sweet and spicy, but someone skipped the spicy part. The chicken was served pink, the kind of pink that used to frighten people into cooking pork chops until they were usable only as orthopedic shoes, but now scare them into cooking chicken breasts until they're fit to use as patches for chaps. That's what Pacific Rim's kitchen did after we sent them back. They returned parched and hard to chew, yet affluent in flavor. Still, the lower portion of the dish--the bok choy, the spice-less yams, the listless corn sauce--needed something to nudge it out of its drowsiness.

But that was the only notable slippage in this cool space filled with black high-backed banquettes, walls drenched in saturated reds and teals, and assortments of little Asian statues and trinkets. (A flock of ducks flies across one wall.) Pacific Rim is what PF Chang's would look like if it wasn't hyperventilating over its own mainstreamed hipness.

Pacific Rim also has Chinese stabs that amount to far more than just a splash of hoisin sauce on a pink breast. There's dim sum too. But like everything else here, there's a twist and an adulteration here and there--Thai salted beef, chicken satay, California rolls--to elevate it.

The dim sum plate ($9) had more hits than misses. Golden purses, pouches made of tofu skin and filled with pulverized crab and chicken and tied off, were delicious if a little soggy from sitting in the puddle of sauce on the plate. Moon leaves, spring-roll pastry somehow welded to pork and shrimp, were equally delicious. But the spring roll was boring and nondescript and was wrapped in thick, indelicate folds of rice paper. Little crimped pouches of rice flour stuffed with peas, corn, and spices were doughy and had little to elevate them above the strenuously mundane.

Curled, putrefying lettuce edges marred the gingered beef salad with Thai pepper dressing ($8), a potentially profound platform for the lush, tender, bright red strips of beef bedded down with shredded carrot, beets, daikon radish, and cucumber slices.

And though generally delicious, the warm and cold seafood salad ($11) also had some leafy drawbacks. Served in a delicate spring-roll pastry bowl, the greens were piled with some of the best deep-fried and chilled seafood I've ever come across. Shrimp and strips of fried calamari were sweet, tender, and virtually greaseless. Plus, the coatings had a good gritty crunch. Interspersed amongst the golden fried sea life were nuggets of cold poached lobster. Yet the drawback was the viscous and sweet mango-sherry dressing that coated the greens like some sort of insect excretion and gave the leaves a flavor reminiscent of those mini-marshmallow fruit salads that terrorized the picnics of my youth. The dressing made the greens limp and listless, robbing them of vibrancy.

Tempura shrimp cocktail ($9) with avocado purée and red chili aioli is one of those Japanese-Southwestern fusings that sounds good on paper. It might work well in reality, except the headliner stumbled, showing badly with a slightly gummy tempura coating that leaked grease when squeezed.

Some dishes are served in special vessels, perhaps to make up any deficiencies that might be perceived. SoHo noodles ($12) arrived in a white bowl with the hollow part carved in the shape of a star. But after sampling the contents, it was clear this dish needed no nudging. SoHo noodles are light, deft, and pleasing. Ingredients are floated in a light, smooth soy-oyster sauce, with its murky brown essence up to the edges of the star points. Wine-marinated strips of flank steak are juicy, firm, and chewy, without any errant gristle or catastrophic cooking damage. Browned, wide rice noodles are firm yet tender. The only wrench in this conundrum of extraordinary balance was the slightly stale tangles of dried rice noodles crowning the dish.

Housemade cheesecake ($5.50) was delicious. Though what we actually ordered was a thing called apricot chilled cheesecake, it was delivered as a lime chilled cheesecake, only I think someone forgot the lime, probably the same person who forgot to spice the yams. Still, it was good: smooth, light, fluffy, and creamy with a good thick crust.

Chow Thai Pacific Rim is the third link in a trio of odd but thrilling (though not always consistently successful) Asian restaurants spawned by Vinnie Virasin, the restaurateur who hatched Chow Thai and Mango Thai. Pacific Rim whets the appetite, not only for the stylish food served here, but for the other ideas that might be hatched from Virasin's brain. All I can say is, keep the chain mail coming.

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