If there's one thing Asian Mint, Asian Fusion Café does, it is this: It takes its name seriously. You wouldn't think this, judging from the exterior, a simple metal and glass strip mall storefront. Yet there are telltale signs, even here. Example: The word "mint" is tattooed across the glass door in a series of green billiard ball dots, one letter per circle. The lower band of glass on the storefront is green, as are the words "pad Thai" and "sushi." Strangely, it's a bright citrus green and not the deep green of mint. Then again, the green of mint isn't as splashy as the zest the Asian Mint décor yearns for, or so it seems.
But first, let's peek at the menu. Near the bottom of the first page, below the "Wi-Fi late night" announcement and the restaurant's title shingle--this time done in billiard cue balls--is this: "Grand Opening Special! 20% off lunch and dinner between November 8-22!" A black wavering Sharpie band negates the deal. Nearby rests this parenthetical disclaimer: Dine in only. Not including sushi.
Big mistake. They should have included sushi. Judging from its tired condition, this stuff needs to move out of the kitchen at full throttle, though it's doubtful a 20 percent sweetener would depress the pedal much.
Asian Mint, Asian Fusion Caf and Dessert Bar
Soft-shell crab $8.95
Garlic quail $14.95
Krapao sea bass $14.95
Sushi $3.50 to $5.95
Ginger salmon $13.95
Pad Thai $9.95
The offerings are basic: tuna, yellowtail, smelt roe and various spidery or crazy rolls (to turbo-charge the hipness factor we all crave more than oxygen, Asian Mint offers the fashion roll). We tried tuna, yellowtail and a spicy tuna roll. The fish is warm; the texture dubious (how do you get tuna to feel like velour?). The rice is dry and hard. Maybe it tastes better when paired with the late-night Wi-Fi.
Evidence of Asian fusion emerges if you look carefully. The Chinese part of the alloy includes Mongolian beef, kung pao, lo mein and cashew chicken. Generic Asian appears as vegetable stir-fry with tofu and ginger black bean. In addition to sushi, the Japanese element employs teriyaki and edamame. New American pops up with fried calamari coated in Japanese (panko) bread crumbs and house crab cakes with cucumber salad called crabby cakes.
Yet the vast swath of this menu is devoted to Thai, and it's best to stick with this genre. That, and the house specialties.
Here is the capstone moment: Krapao crispy sea bass. You don't expect sublimity from food with "crap" in the title (if our phonetic reasoning hasn't atrophied), even if it is spelled with a "k." This is a gently riveting dish. It rests in a white dish with edges rippled like aggressive doily fringe. A slight pool of clear brown basil sauce puddles the base. This is where florets of lawn-green broccoli and flaccid ears of baby corn wade. The fish plank rests on these vegetable atolls, shielded from the murky drench that could easily turn it soggy. The sheath is barely crisp, just enough for a whispered sternness against the teeth. Inside, the fish is moist and slightly sweet--almost nutty as it brushes against the tongue.
Another entrant in this league of specialties is the grilled salmon in ginger sauce, introduced in menu verbiage as "a delectable non-curry version" of the species. It's deceptively simple, with a pert piece of fish topped with ginger, mushrooms and scallions. Ginger was blunted, inflicting neither sting nor culinary rug burn. The salmon is flaky. The jasmine sauce has just enough opacity to frame the fillet without blurring its richness.
More than just a listing of dishes, the Asian Mint menu is a color photo album. See the Asian Mint storefront flaunt its greens while an oval "open" sign burns in red lettering. View a snapshot of the Asian Mint dessert bar next to a glossy of the Thai dessert sampler. Ogle the dining room's green wall.
The mint theme runs away with this restaurant. Hanging from the green wall are six paintings of giant mint leaves rendered in a half dozen shades of green on white-washed canvases. Some of the leaves have gray shadows. This mint green is locked in a death struggle with the brown of coffee. Near the dessert bar is a painting of tumbling coffee beans the size of coconuts. The struggle sweats through the dining room. Green chopsticks peer out of brown napkins. (Brown napkins? Why does this seem to blunt the appetite?) Glass cups, filled with bright green water, float large green glass beads--votive impostors. The dining room divider is brown.
To temper the skirmish, bamboo stalks, sprayed angelic white, grow out of this divider. A few more of those white stalks are mounted on the wall near the entrance with strings of white Italian lights threaded through them. Bar chairs are white and cupped, like Starship Enterprise bridge seating. White Formica tables and white chairs fill out the dining room. The effect is warmly romantic even as it is coolly distant: sci-fi sterility with cappuccino soy milk froth. Throw in the hip ambient music and you have iPod dining at its most potent.
What isn't so potent is the soft-shell crab. This, even though the crab is huge--1950s monster movie huge, the kind of beast that can be slaughtered only by getting it tangled in high-tension power lines. It rests in a peach blob of spicy mayo crab salad; a blend of mayo, smelt roe and (artificial) crab stick. It may seem odd to mate a monster crab with a processed impostor, but a manager says in taste tests customers prefer the fake but accurate version to the real thing. Go figure. The crab is delicious, or at least it would be if it weren't choked in the mayo swamp. The poor animal is struggling to scuttle from a tar pit sponsored by Hellman's. The only visible crab elements through this mayo bulge are the beast's appendages and head.
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The meat is sweet, edged in brine; the shell is tender. But it would be much better if the spicy mayo treatment were a little more restrained, more like a leather bodice from South Beach than quicksand by Tommy Bahama.
Like the crab, the garlic quail has long spindly limbs. The bird is marinated, covered with chopped garlic, deep-fried and planted in a nest of chopped cabbage. It's chewy and moist, dark and flavorful. Garlic is evident, but the heat and zest of the bulb are muted--maybe too muted.
Pad Thai is a gentle marvel, or it could be. The house-made tamarind sauce doesn't clobber. Its tang is blunted. Yet it still fires off a few sparks across the rice noodle tangles. Crushed nuts are cloistered in a heap off to the side. Green onions and bean sprouts greet with crunch. Chicken is moist. Tofu escapes the dreaded soggy kitchen sponge effect.
Still, the dish collapses on account of the awfulness of the shrimp. The flavor is sparse, and what there is resembles soap dish gel. Hence we shrunk from exploring the coffee bean/dessert bar component of this Asian fusion alloy. Yeah, we're wimps. So sue us. Everybody else does. 11617 N. Central Expressway, Suite 135. Open 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$