From sushi and sashimi to edamame and Pad Thai, West meets lots of East at Potstickers.
By Al Mascitti
Potstickers Asian grill & Sushi Bar
1247 New Churchmans Road, Newarkn731-0188
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$10.50; soups and salads: $4.50-$9.75; entrees: $18 to $27 (grilled lamb chops)
Recommendations: Potsticker sampler, sesame chicken, the spider roll (fried softshell crab), eel sushi, seared albacore sushi.
Every sushi lover knows the dilemma you get the craving for something laced with wasabi, but your significant other, or the couple youre meeting, cant abide the stuff.
Forget trying to persuade a raw fish hater that sushi isnt just raw fishthat some of the seafood is cooked, that some pieces are meatless. Its no use extolling the virtues of lean protein and stunning presentation, how a good chef achieves balance among delicate flavors, and makes the morsels look as stark and cool as Danish furniture.
That conundrum is easier to negotiate these days, thanks to the rise of a new type of hybrid restaurant, one that marries the energy and excitement of the sushi bar with the bolder flavors of other Asian culinary traditions.
Pulling off this trick isnt as easy as it might sound. For all their similarities, each Asian cuisine requires unique skills. Cooking passable imitations of each cuisine isnt too difficult, but elevating them beyond the take-out level is a real challenge. Thai curries want careful blends of spices. Chinese stir-fries demand sure timing at the wok. And sushi is a world unto itself. Not so long ago an aspirant had to spend eight years as an apprenticesix of them learning to perfect the rice that gives the dish its namebefore assuming the mantle of sushi chef.
Such pan-Asian restaurants have a long history in Wilmington. Pan Tai, the longtime Union Street fixture that dished up Thai and Vietnamese cuisines with equal aplomb, pioneered the concept back in the 80s. Now, given the popularity of sushi with the public (and its high per-table tabs with restaurant owners), bi-cultural restaurants are more likely to build on a Japanese base.
Perhaps Delawares most familiar current example of this trend is Jasmine, the distinctive Concord Pike eatery whose sleek décor and stylish food belie its shopping-strip locale. By snazzing up the dining room, gussying up the presentation and serving cocktails in martini glasses instead of tiki mugs, Jasmine makes what might seem like familiar ethnic food seem special in an upscale-casual vein.
Evidently the concept is spreading, as illustrated by the late summer opening of Potstickers Asian Grill & Sushi Bar in Christiana, in the large shopping complex across from the hospital thats anchored by The Home Depot.
I know that sounds unpromising, and granted, the surroundings could dampen anyones enthusiasm, especially while negotiating the acres-eating parking lot. Turn in near the chain Australian steak house, go left at the seafood chain where shellfish goes to die, drive around behind the Italian chain that treats you like family (perhaps relatives who wont be invited to the next wedding), and there you are. Seeing so many restaurants where the national advertising budget dwarfs the local payroll doesnt exactly inspire confidence in prospective customers.
Once you walk in, though, the advantage of installing a dining room in a big-box center instead of a smaller strip mall becomes obviousmore room for a designer to play with. Instead of foam tiles looming only 10 or 12 feet overhead, as in most shopping centers, at Potstickers the ductwork and other utilities remain exposed, yet disappear into the heights above bold red light fixtures that look like Japanese lanterns on steroids.
The rest of the décor picks up the creative tension implied by the vaguely Japanese aestheticwood contrasts with stone, geometric china plays off organically curved flatware, and high-backed, shell-shaped banquets interrupt the regimented atmosphere cast by the stern, blocky, rectangular tables and chairs.
A niftier trick is the way the décor pays homage to some of the traditions of old-fashioned Asian restaurants while simultaneously winking at them for a sophisticated audience. For example, while most corner Chinese eateries perch a smiling Buddha statue near the cash register, at Potstickers, a soaring stone wall across from the bar is studded with more than a dozen niches containing Buddhas in various materials and most imaginable poses. A sprawling Chinese mural backs the bar, adding to the luxe atmosphere.
The net effect of all this splendor is a dining room swank enough to coax patrons into splurging on specialty martinis and cosmopolitans (theres also a rudimentary list of wines by the glass and a better-than-basic choice of beers). It justifies entree prices that pull the average check up to about $40 a person.
Of course, none of this would work if the kitchen couldnt deliver the goods. Luckilymaybe its all the Buddhasit rises to the challenge.
Start with the restaurants namesake. Naming a restaurant after a particular dish, especially one as prosaic as pot stickers, shouldnt set high expectations. Nonetheless, the kitchen clears the bar with ease. The dumplings, some steamed, some fried, come in four fillings: shrimp, pork, chicken and vegetable. Each was first-ratethin wrappers given a quick cooking, filled with spanking-fresh ingredients and distinctive enough seasoning to make each stand apart from the others. You can eliminate the need to choose among them by ordering an eight-piece sampler, which arrives with pickled vegetables and a mesclun-based garden salad in a ginger-tinged dressing.
Other appetizers run the Pacific Rim spectrum, from tempura and edamame to spring rolls and satay. The entrees are more segregated, split into two main categories: sushi and sashimi from Japan and stir-fried favorites from China. These are supplemented with a few Thai and Vietnamese specialties, along with some dishes best categorized as contemporary American cooking with Asian influences.
Even the dishes that wouldnt seem out of place on a take-out menu are elevated by artistic presentations. Duck is prepared two ways: as breast meat seared in the French manner, then served with a whiskey-spiked Hoisin sauce, and as shredded leg meat stir-fried with mixed vegetables. Both are conventional treatments. Whats unusual is the juxtaposition and the composition of the plate, one half painted with Hoisin sauce beneath the tender breast meat, the other piled with shredded meat and sautéed green vegetables.
The Western influence went beyond the presentation. Though Chinese restaurants often cook duck too briefly to render the layer of fat beneath the skin, leaving the skin limp and chewy, there was no such problem here.
A mound of crispy sesame chicken, served in a striking rectangular cross between a bowl and a dish, consisted of bite-size, batter-fried chunks of meat in a lightly citrus-flavored sweet-and-sour saucebasically a sprightly variation on orange chicken. It, too, was paired with a second Chinese menu staple, dry-sautéed green beans. Well, its a staple for those who troll the vegetarian section of Chinese menus, and the Potstickers version, though a bit under-seasoned, was better than most.
Sushi lovers might have the most grounds for complaintnot over the quality but the somewhat limited selection. My own taste in the stuff is anything but hip. I prefer traditional standbys like eel and tuna to the overstuffed, heavily sauced combination rolls so popular these days. I was disappointed but not surprised to find many of my stodgy favoritesmackerel, octopus, flying fish roefailed to make the roster, but the eel and seared albacore helped cushion the blow. The choice of creative rolls is likewise brief, but the spider rollnamed after the fried soft shell crab whose legs poke out either endmade a tight, tasty bundle, crisp and fresh.
Pad Thai was the only dish we tasted that lacked the spark of something special. The classic Thai noodle salad was OKthe shrimp were especially tenderbut more vegetables and fewer noodles would have given it a better balance of body and crunch, and the sauce needed a piquant kick.
The parade of striking plates continued at dessert, highlighted by twin pyramids of smooth chocolate mousse between trickles of raspberry sauce. All this was brought to us by a cheerful rookie who was still learning to recognize various types of seafood on the sushi platter and, for that matter, the difference between still and sparkling bottled water. I hope she survives the amount of attention Potstickers should get when word spreads.
In the chain-choked environment of Christianas I-95-Route 1 interchange, any decent one-of-a-kind restaurant will stand out from the crowd. Potstickers is better than thatbright, imaginative food in a space that works for anything from after-work dinner to weekend date.
And thats true even if you dont eat sushi.
Cheers to 10 Years
On a Thursday in September, partners Kevin Finn, Kevin Davies and Mark Edelson got together in Newark to brew beer. It was the trios first collaborative effort, which is surprising considering they own Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant.
Typically, Finn handles marketing and operations, Davies oversees the restaurant and Edelson brews the beer. Before heading into the brewery, Finn joked, We hope our friendship will survive it.
They also hoped the beerIron Hills first attempt at a Belgian dark brew known as Trappist alewould turn out as planned. For this is a very special beer for a very special occasion: The bottled ale marks Iron Hills 10th anniversary.
Apparently, both the friendship and the beer have survived, and Fe10 will be released on November 14, the date that Iron Hill opened in Newark. (Fe is the symbol for iron, and the 10 indicates both the anniversary and the ales respectable 10 percent alcohol content.)
A robust beer is appropriate for a business that has come on strong over the past decade. Last month Iron Hill opened its sixth restaurant, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Two more restaurants are planned for 2007.
Finn largely credits the staff, many of whom have been with Iron Hill since the start, as the secret to the chains success. There have been 17 marriages among Iron Hill staff, and Iron Hill romances have produced 15 children.
The customers have been as loyal as the employees. Finn says 93 percent are repeat visitors. Newark has the highest number of repeat customers, followed by West Chester, he says. At West Chester, regulars come at least once a week or more.
Apparently, customers cant get enough of items that have been on the menu from the start. In 10 years, Iron Hill has sold 124,167 Tex-Mex egg rolls, 493,190 brewski burgers and 33,386 wood-oven Garcia pizzas. The latter, which features exotic mushrooms, was named for Jerry Garcia, whose willingness to experiment with all types of drugsincluding shroomsis legendary, Finn explains.
In 10 years, Iron Hill has produced 967 batches of beer, which equals about 240,000 bottles. Its creations have received a total of 19 medals at the Great American Beer Festival.
The partners show no signs of stopping their healthy expansion. They are currently talking to developers in Philadelphia and looking at sites in Lancaster. Pam George