I know I just have super heroes on the brain. Black Panther, Wonder Woman, more Avengers coming up. But here’s one who hasn’t gotten much press: Thuy Le, the lovely and stylish owner of Thuy Café on 34th Street N, La V on Central Avenue, Nouvelle Beauty Bar down the block, the new Asie Pan-Asian next door to La V and another nail salon poised to open near the Chihuly Museum. She’s indefatigable, cheerily greeting longtime customers and newcomers alike. And she has shown savvy business acumen, building a brand and a mini empire since her first little cafe debuted in 2001.
People don’t know about her superpower. General manager Jason Saal says that since Asie opened in December, Le has been a whirlwind, out in the dining room perfectly coiffed and wearing tippy high heels, reappearing moments later in the kitchen in flats, hair in a bun and apron tied just so, sauteeing and chopping. Then, poof, she’s doing the whole thing all over again next door at La V.
Le was in the advance team of Vietnamese restaurants in these parts, long before most of us knew anything about banh mi or vermicelli bowls. She was early to the boba craze and among the earliest adopters of seriously fashion-forward light fixtures (at La V, sconces are essentially feathered creatures tethered to the ceiling). And with her new concept Asie, she’s done it again, with decor that features pressed tin ceilings, elaborately laid wood floors and more crazy light fixtures, these ones like a phalanx of jellyfish bellied up to the bar.
Because the new restaurant is adjacent, and shares a door with La V, together they are considered big enough to benefit from a full liquor license, something that has been parlayed at Asie into a sassy list of Asian-inflected classic cocktails — an old fashioned with Japanese whiskey, a "Beijing Collins," a mojito made with rum from the Philippines. There are daily drink deals and a short, appealing wine list as well.
Downtown St. Petersburg has a number of Asian fusion restaurants, for some reason a special density of Thai mated with Japanese. Asie is something a bit different. It is not a compendium of crowd-fave Asian dishes, nor does it hue strictly to a particular cuisine in each dish.
At lunch it may be most obvious that what Le is doing here is something different: For a base price of $9 you can have an anchor of something like ginger chicken or spicy pork, a generous portion that centers a white platter crowded with a tangle of steamed veggies (asparagus still snappy-crisp, bok choy, lettuce, etc.), a dome of white rice, a sushi roll of the day and — this is the coolest part — a wedge of veggie-studded omelet. There’s usually a sweet-tart dipping sauce in which to waggle a length of veg or bit of omelet. Nice, and unusual.
The overall effect is of healthful foods, attractively presented, with a Chinese-Viet-Japanese vibe that doesn’t get hung up on verisimilitude. At dinner, for instance, one of the big sellers is beef short ribs ($20), slow braised to tenderness in a very Western way, but with a light chili-edged sauce and accompaniments of broccoli, mushroom and asparagus, all of it pulling together in a way that feels Asian.
Le says that in the evening the sushi has been the star, a short lineup of nigiri ($6), sashimi ($6) and familiar maki ($8) overshadowed by signature rolls ($12) that fan out in elaborate dragons and rainbows — only the Super Crunch roll the kind of "more is more" kitchen-sink aesthetic; everything else, while decorative, puts the fish center stage.
Le has just launched an expanded lunch menu, in addition to offering a separate gluten-free menu and a vegan menu (let’s hope other restaurants follow her lead). In upcoming weeks she will have a muralist festoon the two side walls with dragons — all part of the stylish gloss she’s giving this stretch of downtown St. Pete. To me, though, this super hero’s biggest gift is a gentle reminder to eat our vegetables.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.