Zipangu, 1006 East Warner, Tempe, 480-839-3924. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
"Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling.
Obviously, the poet never made it to the Valley of the Sun. That's because these days, East and West are getting together all over town, upsetting traditional notions of both geography and gastronomy.
Over on the east side, at the Tempe-Chandler frontier, sits Zipangu, a self-styled "Amerasian bistro" whose kitchen likes to tweak Japanese dishes in an offbeat way. Out on the west side, Bamboo Grille shares the same Amerasian philosophy, using familiar Asian flavors to attract the Occidental tourist.
Set in the inevitable shopping-strip storefront, Zipangu looks a lot more handsome from the inside. The design is sleekly modern, with Asian and Western touches in tones of black and gray. The walls are hung with an East-meets-West combination of art that includes Japanese calligraphy and a Mondrian print. Tiny bulbs illuminate the small room. You can take a spot at the sushi bar, or sit at a table. But if you do opt for the latter, try to resist the urge to play restaurant hockey. You'll be sitting on chairs with wheels that glide effortlessly over the smooth wood floor.
Management has set the tables with care. White cloth napkins are artfully folded on the wood table tops, and you can lay down the pretty black enamel chopsticks on a china butterfly when they're not in use. The kitchen expects you to use the chopsticks, too: The fork-and-knife crowd has to ask for cutlery.
If you're into grazing, you'll find green pastures at Zipangu. Most everything on the menu is designed to be nibbled, munched or otherwise easily consumed. And most everything is so tasty you won't have any problem swiftly consuming it.
Sushi is a good grazing option. You won't find anything particularly daring here, but the usual suspects are competently prepared and put together in larger portions than I'm accustomed to seeing. The most effective way to sample a variety of tastes is to bypass the sushi list. Instead, order the Nigirizushi off the regular menu.
For $16, you'll get an eight-piece sushi platter, consisting of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, crab, octopus, clam and freshwater eel. You'll also receive three morsels from a tuna cucumber roll. Sushi hand rolls are another appealing grazing alternative. The spicy scallop and salmon skin models are especially compelling.
What sets Zipangu's nibbles apart, however, is the yakitori, bite-size pieces of marinated chicken, beef, pork, seafood or veggies, skewered on wooden sticks and grilled. You can quickly run up a tab enjoying these addicting treats, priced from $1.50 to $5. I liked everything: soy-sopped white meat chicken, pungent ginger pork, zesty garlic beef, juicy scallops, firm shrimp and earthy shiitake mushroom caps.
Don't overlook the plain-sounding "Rolls," inconspicuously listed at the bottom of the sushi menu. They're cleverly crafted. The chef spreads out a thin slice of pork, then rolls it up with asparagus, eggplant or enoki mushrooms. These munchies are exceptionally tasty, good enough to fill up on.
Other grazing pleasures await. The vegetable spring rolls won't remind you of spring rolls you've had elsewhere. You get two of them, small, deep-fried noshes cut diagonally in half, and gracefully stuffed with a thimbleful of shiitake mushrooms, carrot, scallion, sprouts, corn and snow peas. They're as pretty to look at as they are to eat. The $5.50 tag, though, may give you pause.
Nothing, however, should keep you from the tempura. It's a generous assortment--a couple of prawns, calamari, mushroom, asparagus, onion, green pepper and sweet potato. They're right out of the fryer, coated with a light, delicate batter.
Chilled shabu shabu shows some creativity. Shabu shabu is a hot dish, paper-thin slices of beef cooked briefly in a seasoned broth. (The dish gets its name from the hissing sound the meat makes as it's plunged into the bubbling liquid.) The chef here, though, cools six slices of beef, and rolls them up with enoki mushrooms and spinach, in the shape of a cone. Dip the concoction in ponzu sauce for some extra punch.
If grazing isn't your style, you can go two ways. The obento dinners lead off with miso soup and a terrific house salad, put together with a mix of fresh greens and dressed with a perky lemon-ginger vinaigrette.
The obento box itself features six compartments: one for the entree, one for the rice, and four filled with a selection of veggies. Tonkatsu, tender pork loin that's breaded, fried and sliced, is a first-rate obento entree choice. So are the spicy garlic prawns, five meaty shrimp that bite back. The chef does a fine job with the veggie sides, too. With items like spinach topped with dried fish flakes, seasoned mixed peppers, marinated shiitake mushrooms and cucumber salad, you won't have to be urged to eat your vegetables.
You can also make a main course out of some very untraditional noodle dishes. The waiter tried to talk me out of the buckwheat soba--"People don't like it, they send it back," he advised. Naturally, after that kind of warning, I felt practically duty-bound to check it out.
After a taste, I could understand why some folks might be turned off. It's a bowl full of thick noodles, tossed with three kinds of Asian mushrooms, cod roe and smelt roe, and finished with a very un-Japanese-like wine and cream sauce. "Weird" is not an inapt description. But it didn't take more than two bites to get used to, and I found the odd flavors intriguing. And, apparently, I made the chef's day. After the empty bowl returned to the kitchen, he came bounding over to our table, beaming with pride, to thank me for enjoying his creation.
Yaki udon is another unusual noodle platter. This one throws together a few scallops, squid, mussels, hacked-up shrimp, olives and mushrooms, all moistened with a smoky, spicy sauce. It's heavy, filling and tasty.
No doubt, Zipangu can be a bit eccentric, maybe too eccentric for purists or the risk-averse. But if you can handle it, you may find, as I did, that eccentricity can have its charms.
Bamboo Grille, 3049 West Agua Fria Freeway (Deer Valley Towne Center), Phoenix, 623-587-0800. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Set in the massive Deer Valley Towne Center, just a few storefronts down from the 30-screen movie complex, Bamboo Grille should get plenty of foot traffic. If some of those feet are attached to hungry bodies, they ought to consider stopping in. The prices are right, and if you order right, so is the food.
As you might expect, Bamboo Grille isn't fancy, but there are some eye-catching Asian touches. Just inside the entrance is a model of a Far Eastern garden, complete with burbling stream. A dragon-filled mural sits above the glassed-in kitchen. The black-topped tables are set with red cloth napkins. And since you're on the west side, they're also set with forks and knives--if you want chopsticks, you'll have to ask for them.
The fare tilts toward China, with toned-down Pan-Asian elements. The kitchen knows its customers aren't homesick natives, desperate for Old Country delicacies. They're west-siders, looking to fill up before a movie or after a shopping spree. So there's little here that would make even the most skittish diner nervous.
What made me nervous, however, were the appetizers. Too many of them were either not ready for, or way beyond, prime time.
Take the pan-fried pot stickers. Yes, they were pan-fried, but when? Ours were rubbery with curled-up edges and no skillet sizzle. Thai chicken rolls tasted like something you'd take a nibble of, and discard, at a cocktail party. Barbecued pork sported a nice shiny glaze, but it covered tired, chewy meat. And the crispy, flash-fried spinach was much too salty.
Island poki has potential. It's a generous portion of raw ahi, marinated in sesame oil and soy sauce, and punched up with scallions and chile. But the fish comes thickly cubed, instead of thinly sliced. The texture is all wrong.
But Bamboo Grille gets one appetizer exactly right. It's a minced mix of shrimp, chicken and veggies served with large iceberg lettuce fronds. Scoop the ingredients into the lettuce, dip in hoisin sauce, and munch merrily away.
The main dishes won't seem cutting-edge to sophisticates, but many flash surprising signs of energy. Orange chicken, for example, is wonderful--fresh, crispy chunks of poultry done up in a spunky citrus sauce that's both sweet and tangy. Lemongrass chicken is just as effective, enhanced with crunchy celery for texture and chile heat for taste.
Beef fans won't be disappointed. Teppan steak features lots of tender beef on a sizzling platter, doused in teriyaki sauce and gilded with a pile of mushrooms and onions. And the oddly named Forest Fire brings good-quality sliced beef ringed by broccoli, all coated in a robust black bean sauce.
A couple of seafood dishes also impressed me. The Bamboo's Bird Nest is about as creative as the kitchen gets: Shrimp, scallops and veggies rest in a crispy potato nest, touched with a mild garlic sauce that doesn't overwhelm them. And I'd never have believed I'd find such good shrimp with lobster sauce in a west-side shopping center. The shrimp are plentiful, and the sauce shows some depth.
Not every entree shines. The pan-fried noodle dish isn't really a noodle dish at all. It's way too heavy on the chicken and veggies, and way too light on the noodles. And I should have gone with my instincts and avoided the pineapple fried rice. Not even the scooped-out pineapple basin it's served in could save this lackluster mix of chicken, shrimp, pork and rice.
Give Bamboo Grille credit for trying to do something outside the usual west-side lines. In a neighborhood sea of chain-restaurant mediocrity, it's a port worth steering into.
Chilled shabu shabu
Shrimp with lobster sauce
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