But it pretty much went uphill from there, and now I'm looking forward to returning. When you're a restaurant critic, first impressions aren't always everything.
I'd gone to the stylish new "modern Asian" restaurant in the hopes of eating my all-time favorite Japanese noodle soup, tonkotsu ramen. In its ideal incarnation, this pork-centric dish is so satisfying that I'm compelled to gulp the broth after I've slurped up all the noodles.
Let's just say I didn't do that at Nine 05. A few bites of my dinner date's dish — bland vindaloo chicken — didn't cheer me up, either.
I'm glad I branched out over the next few visits, though. There's actually a lot to love on the menu — flavors of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Thailand, and beyond, served with contemporary sophistication. Along the way, things have been added and subtracted, too (always good to see the kitchen making tweaks).
Chef-owner Matt Carter (of Scottsdale's Zinc Bistro and The Mission) and chef de cuisine Jay Bogsinske are the duo behind the concept. Initially, they'd taken over Fate in the wake of chef-owner Johnny Chu's departure, soon giving it a name change. Then, over the summer, they did a serious revamp, souping up the vintage house into a sleek version of its former self, and debuting a completely new, more upscale menu.
(Their plans to further transform the corner of Fourth Street and Garfield in the coming months include another two new restaurants — Canteen, a European gastro-pub going in next door to Nine 05, and El Rey Taqueria. The existing mushroom-shaped outdoor bar is a holdover from the Fate era.)
While Fate was endearingly bohemian, Nine 05 exudes a mod urbanity, with round Nelson bubble lamps, shiny white furniture, and retro-inspired prints juxtaposed with exposed brick walls. The kinetic energy buzzing in the bright open kitchen makes the rest of the space seem dynamic.
On a nice night, the front "garage door" wall opens to the front patio, whose back-to-back wooden banquettes make it feel more cohesive than the scattering of tables and chairs that you see in most outdoor dining setups. And just on the other side of the patio entrance, there's often a DJ mixing beats for people mingling at the bar.
Nine 05's casual-hip vibe and very personable waitstaff make it accessible, although it's still somewhat aspirational for an emerging neighborhood that's not accustomed to seeing $26 seared scallop entrees and $12 glasses of Zinfandel. (In all fairness, most dishes go for less than 15 bucks.)
That said, there is a novelty factor here that should appeal to the downtown crowd. Where else in CenPho — no, where else in the Valley — can you nibble on a hot, scallion-flecked crepe stuffed with moist, melt-in-your-mouth red miso brisket? It's undoubtedly craveable, and I'd definitely order it again.
And while there are quite a few great drinking establishments in the vicinity, Nine 05 still manages to boast a noteworthy drink list, with wine, sake, tea, Vietnamese iced coffee, housemade soda in flavors like lychee or mandarin, and a baker's dozen of imported beers from Japan, Thailand, and beyond.
For me, Nine 05's successful items gave a proper nod to tradition while still adding an upscale bistro twist. A good example was a plate of crispy, golden fried dumplings filled with duck and foie gras, spiked with tangy orange-chile glaze — yin and yang gone gourmet. Likewise, a heap of shrimp fried rice, filled with tender shrimp, lots of scrambled egg, and a great spicy-sweet sauce, tasted of high-caliber ingredients cooked just right.
Soba noodles were served as a light, refreshing salad, tossed with cabbage, radish, crispy shishito peppers, and crunchy cashews; and fresh octopus sashimi, kissed with olive oil, was teamed with a pile of mizuna, scallions, red onion, and red chile. At the other end of the spectrum, thick, fork-tender pieces of char siu pork were succulent and rich, their sweet Chinese barbecue marinade caramelized on the edges. A nest of garlic long beans and chunky Asian pear sauce rounded out the plate.
But at lunch, the banh mi missed the mark. It was served on a baguette roll and layered with roast pork, pâté, and headcheese, just like a typical Vietnamese sandwich. However, instead of pickles and cucumbers and fresh cilantro, toppings that make even the most meat-laden sandwich seem light, this was bogged down with drippy, not-spicy kimchee, and served with cold, salty pork broth for dipping. It lacked balance. Meanwhile, bland vegetable spring rolls made me pine for my favorite hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint.
As I mentioned earlier, expectation clashed with reality when I tasted the tonkotsu ramen, which had a strongly smoky, dark brown pork broth instead of the pale, milky pork bone broth I'd hoped for, and the noodles were mushy. A gorgeously gooey poached egg, charred scallions, and a heap of unctuous pork belly seemed wasted on it. Sweet, fermented black garlic, gai lan, Chinese celery, and toothsome noodles added interest to the shoyu ramen, but again, the soy sauce broth needed oomph. I do hope they try to perfect these soups.
Vindaloo chicken conjured up thoughts of spice, yet it was quite mild — creamy coconut sauce smothering a piece of crispy chicken, with mint-yogurt and two thick "fries" made out of rice. However, twice-fried chicken had some zing (thanks to kimchee, radish, and soy-garlic glaze) and so did plump mussels bobbing in a zesty sauce of red curry, coconut milk, and lemongrass. The heady aroma perked up everyone at the table.
There was one blatant departure from convention that suited me just fine, and that was in the dessert department. Sweets aren't always a strong point at Asian restaurants, but Nine 05 dished up three tasty, impressive confections — dense Vietnamese coffee and chocolate torte with chai ice cream, gooey butterscotch sauce, and shavings of candied ginger; creamy coconut tapioca pudding sweetened with guava and strawberry sauce; and moist blueberry mochi cake with passion fruit syrup and dazzling lychee ice cream. Very nice.
Like some of the other menu standouts, the desserts show that Nine 05 is trying to step things up in the downtown dining scene. That's my latest impression of this ambitious restaurant, and the one I think will stick.