Cafe Reviews

Bamboo, Pee-Yew!

A colleague of mine left me a copy of a certain publication the other day with the attached note, "Well, I guess someone feels threatened." The someone in this case was a fellow food scribbler whose surname rhymes with "Puke-cannon." I'd never bothered to pick up the rag in question, as it's one of those examples of putrid civic boosterism filled with ads for jewelers and plastic surgeons mostly read by Sun City canasta players, wrinkled Snottsdale socialites and Ahwatukee hausfraus eager to learn about the latest in lawn furnishings.

Despite the source, I was flattered to discover that Mizz Puke-cannon had, in her tepid review of that cutting-edge sushi house Blue Wasabi, referred to me as "some smart-aleck from L.A." who had so tweaked her crow's-feet with my impudent culinary commentary that it set her on a pro-bumpkin rant about how she'd grown up in the Valley, and how dare anyone who had not lived 40-plus years in the same place be critical of anything in it. I got a good chuckle out of that one. See, according to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, almost 780,000 souls moved to this area between 1992 and 2002, with an average net migration of 70,700 persons. Good luck getting all of us to shut up.

Like myself, many of these folks have lived in major metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles. We have high expectations for our urban playgrounds, and we demand a higher quality of goods and services. Though we may seem like arrogant carpetbaggers at times, this ability to compare what's available in Phoenix versus what's available in Gotham, La-la Land, Chi-town or San Fran is crucial if Phoenix is to rise above the provincialism of this town's Puke-cannons.

After all, who would you rather have advising you on what to put into your pie-hole? Some soccer mom so lacking in curiosity that her palate has been developed solely within the confines of Maricopa County? Or someone who has lived, variously, in London, New York, Los Angeles, the Southeast, and now, Phoenix? Travel can make up for some naiveté. But though I've benefited from visiting places like Japan and France, it's not the same as having lived in either country for any length of time.

Puke-cannon derides Blue Wasabi, with its inventive, taste-bud-tantalizing cocktail and sushi creations, as being too "hip" for alter kockers such as herself. What does the Cookie Tossing Queen like better? Sauce, a chain-style pizzeria that in any other major megalopolis would be hard-pressed to garner more than a line or two of positive press. She describes this bland bistro in such glowing terms that it's difficult to comprehend, even with the hick handicap factored in.

Alas, experimental eateries like Blue Wasabi are rare, made all the more so by the vagaries of the biz. As I penned this column, chef David Feimster, Blue Wasabi's sushi wunderkind, informed me he's leaving BW because of "management differences" and will open a new sushi joint out in Anthem this December called Off the Hook. One hopes the best for both parties, but what will it take to get such intrepid sushi spots closer to Phoenix? Certainly, food writers with a Mayberry mindset are of no help.

I've been giving Puke-cannon's provincialism some thought lately, because I recently received an e-mail from a PR flack notifying me that Arizona-based Bamboo Club had been ranked No. 1 in Asian restaurants by AZ Business Magazine, and wouldn't I like to review it. Wait a sec -- Bamboo Club? You mean the P.F. Chang's wanna-be that, like Paul Fleming's overrated enterprise, produces so-called "Asian food" for goofy ofays? Normally, my answer would be stony silence, but then I noticed that my hayseed heroine's dining guide of noteworthy nosheries included ye ole Bamboo, and it occurred to me that BC was the perfect symbol of the struggle for the Valley's stomach between an old guard (and I do mean old) who think bland corporate spots like the Cheesecake Factory, Sauce and the Bamboo Club are "good eatin'," and those more inclined to value daring, indie stabs at gustatory greatness, such as Blue Wasabi. So I decided to answer this flack's prayers by paying a few visits to Bamboo Club's Biltmore Fashion Park locale.

Straight up, I have to grant Bamboo Club points when it comes to atmosphere and service. Generally, BC doesn't look too bad on the inside, with a modern, vaguely Asian decor of black banquettes, plastic "wicker" chairs, dim lighting, and bamboo wall pieces. And I can't complain too much about the service I received from BC's wait staff, save to say that I never got the chopsticks I asked for on my first visit. But then, with such dull Pan-Asian cuisine on offer, I don't think chopsticks would have done much to make my meal more palatable.

I tried several items on the menu, including the sesame honey chicken, the Hawaiian macadamia nut chicken, the chicken with asparagus in black bean sauce, the Vietnamese black pepper chicken and the pad Thai with chicken and shrimp. All items were edible, but beyond that, completely lacking in any flavor or pizzazz. Nearly any greasy-spoon Chinese joint can do better, and save for the chicken with asparagus, which was redeemed somewhat by the black bean sauce, each of them was on a par taste-wise with noshing a napkin. Imagine going to a French-themed restaurant and receiving a stack of stale Wonder bread instead of a fresh, yummy baguette, and you'll get an inkling of what Bamboo has in store for you.

On three occasions, Bamboo Club has served me the worst prepared rice I've ever eaten, dry in some places and in big, gooey clumps in others. I can only guess it was left in the rice cooker for too long. And as for the "soothing lettuce wraps," wherein diced chicken, shrimp, and/or steak is supposed to be wrapped in all-American iceberg lettuce, dipped in hoisin sauce and eaten -- for this horrid mockery of Asian eats, someone really should receive a proper flogging.

For championing similarly insipid fare, Mizz Puke-cannon deserves an even worse fate. I say we make her eat this dreck. But don't cry for her, Phoenix. Chances are she'll enjoy every mundane morsel.

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