Letís review our star system. One star is fair, two is good, three is great and four is mind-blowing. Iím going to start my review of Bar Asia by saying that one star for service is generous. Hereís why.
On my first visit, the bartender was crabby; management had changed the cocktail menu, moved things around, they were out of some key ingredients. He spent time shaking his head and grumbling, before substituting an $8 glass of sauvignon blanc for the $12 one we ordered. (And yes, we were charged for the $12 one until we brought it to his attention.) That might have been an isolated snafu, easily forgiven. But it wasnít. The next visit I ordered a glass of wine and the bartender (a different one) told me they were out of it, so I ordered the cheaper one of the same varietal. Instead, I was given an expensive glass of a different varietal altogether.
Dishes arrive at tables with no silverware in sight. Uneaten dishes never get an "is everything alright" inquiry. Entrees supposedly come with soup, and I was not offered soup on any visit. I watched a whole table of women receive a sashimi and sushi platter that seemed to be largely comprised of things they didnít order.
I recognize that staffing is tough with so many new restaurants gearing up (partial list in Tampa alone: 3 Dot Dash Vegan Kitchen, Bodega and Mandarin Heights, Burgerim, Catrinas Tacos and Tequila, Ciccio Cali, Clean Juice, Forbici, Gen X Tavern, Hooch and Hive, La Segunda Central Bakery, Lolis Mexican Cravings, Maple Street Biscuit Company, Metro Diner, Nebraska Mini-Mart, Nueva Cantina, Osteria Italian Bar and Kitchen, Remedy, SoHo Juice Co., Taco Dirty, the Bowery). But managing partner Aldo Truong is going to have to do better if he aims to have Bar Asia thrive.
It is at the very outer edge of SoHo, one block south of Kennedy Boulevard at Cleveland Street (a one-way street the wrong way, so you must swing around the block to get into the parking lot). The party people require serious come-hither enticements to hike so far north from MacDintonís et al. And thus far, those enticements are lacking.
Knocking down two little houses on the lot to erect a spacious, high-ceilinged, indoor-outdoor restaurant, the space is attractive, kitted out with lots of stainless steel, Edison bulbs and rows of flat-screen TVs juxtaposed with a row of fat Buddhas. The overall effect is contemporary sports bar with an Asian fillip here and there.
As Iíve said, service has hurdles to overcome (as do communications: the websiteís email doesnít work, and no one ever picks up the phone), but the menu may have an equal number of challenges. On my first two visits only about half of the menu was available, the rest of the dish descriptions shaded so you could see what would be coming once the kitchen was up to speed. My third visit, the whole shebang was on offer: Itís a compendium of dishes that are loosely Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese.
If you read about national culinary trends, a consistent prediction is that menus will have more, not less, specificity. Diners are sophisticated enough now to think of Asian fusion as too diffuse and lacking in verisimilitude. Experts predict a rise in things like regional Chinese and a dwindling of Thai-sushi mashups. It makes sense to me. Itís hard to effectively render the flavors, textures and essential character of several cuisines at once.
And this is clearly the case at Bar Asia. Order shaking beef ($20), a classic Vietnamese dish of fat, moist cubes of beef with a little vinegar-soy tang, which gets its name from how you must shake the pan to keep the beef from sticking. The accoutrements are okay (greens, tomato half-wheels, pickled onion), but the beef itself is dry little curls. Asian wings ($10) bring six drumettes and flats so heavily breaded and fried they read like chicken doughnuts with a sweet soy gloss. Vietnamese crispy egg rolls are straightforward and pleasant, served with a very sweet nuoc cham, but at $6 it made me think of all the Vietnamese restaurants where Iíve had better for much less.
A great deal of the menu is given over to common specialty rolls (Volcano, Ultimate Mexican, Sexy Roll, etc.) at prices that are significantly higher than at nearby SoHo Sushi, Matoi or Sushi Ninja. Rolling can be a bit imprecise, but platter presentations are pretty ó I just wasnít sure how I felt about paying $15 for a spicy crunchy tuna roll.
Seven taco offerings are more fairly priced, ringing in between $3 and $5, but with all the taco and fusion taco options in South Tampa (there are seriously five new taco places in the Gandy to Ballast Point area), these are a little wan: pale tortillas on a rectangular platter topped with something like tempura shrimp or that same shaking beef, citrus slaw or pickled cabbage, then squiggled with a "signature sauce" that seems like a sriracha mayo and capped by a dryish lime wedge. Eh.
The bar program is another element that should get a little more scrutiny. There was an attempt to make the specialty cocktail lineup Asian-food friendly, but this largely meant adding ginger beer to cocktails, many of them with an overreliance on sweetness. There are so many options: shochu, sake and soju, Japanese whisky and baijiu. This list seems mired in how to make a margarita more Asian.
South Tampa restaurants have stepped up their game in order to stay competitive the past few years. Bar Asia will have to raise its bar.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.