First Bite: Asiana House, Montpelier
Gary Ma, left, plates maki rolls
With a 25-minute wait for a table at Asiana House, the long-awaited new sushi place in Montpelier, a friend and I had plenty of time to mull over our first order: the sashimi appetizer, a plate of fried oysters with spicy mayo and maybe a lychee margarita.
Although it was Wednesday night and not Friday, the crowd — which filled the bar, the sushi counter and all of the tables — gave off the vibe of a long-suffering, now emancipated group. Apparently, Montpelier has been hungry for sushi, pop-up meals from Himitsu Secret Sushi notwithstanding.
Yet to label Asiana House simply a sushi bar would be incorrect. As anyone who has visited its sister restaurant in Burlington knows, the menu there touches on almost every conceivable Asian cuisine, from Thai (chicken satay, panang beef) to Korean (bibimbap) to the seaweed salads, gyoza, tempura and sushi of Japan.
As we waited, huddled in the doorway, we peered across the foyer at a glassed-in vault door left over from the Chittenden Bank that used to operate here. Maki rolls issued from the sushi bar, where owner-chef Gary Ma seemed to be seriously hustling. Along the bar, people sipped pastel cocktails from bulbous glasses. A hostess seated diners with austere efficiency, skillfully avoiding eye contact with those who had a reservation but were still waiting past their appointed time.
By the time we sat down at a comfy corner table, we were hungry. Very hungry. And, though the food at Asiana House is decent — sometimes even excellent — we learned that iffy service and organization could muddle the experience.
The story of Asiana House goes back a decade, to when Ma — a sushi chef trained in Boston — founded Burlington’s Asiana House on the corner of Pearl Street and South Winooski Avenue. It’s been a fixture of the local sushi scene ever since, probably owing to Ma’s commitment to very fresh fish (he makes regular Boston trips for it) and the voluminous, something-for-everyone menu. With 10 years under his belt, Ma says he was tapped by two Montpelier landlords, Jeff and Jesse Jacobs, as a potential tenant for the long-empty historic building at 43 State Street.
Jesse Jacobs, Jeff’s son, has made a point of getting tenants into the vacant storefronts owned by his company, Montpelier Property Management. He’s a proponent of historic preservation, and the elegant rooms at Asiana House show it. The renovation preserved details such as the vault and the counter where bank slips used to be kept. Added were antique sconces and modern lamps, wooden blinds and cushy banquettes. The result is almost speakeasy-like, especially at the enormous table tucked into a sinuous banquette at the very back.
Ma rented the space last fall but opened just a month ago; the only signs are a neon “Open” sign and a temporary banner hanging over the door.
In the midst of all of Asiana House’s elegance, our Wednesday night visit gave us a sense of controlled chaos. We seemed to hit the place at peak dinnertime, yet once we were finally seated, it emptied out rapidly. Even so, we had to wait another 15 minutes or so to place our order.
The menu is almost a carbon copy of the Burlington restaurant’s, with an extensive array of maki rolls, noodle soups, udon and even a Korean-style grilled ribeye steak. Ma stresses that the menu is temporary — “I still need to learn a lot from this town” — and says he’ll add new dishes over time. The Japanese chef who was supposed to launch the restaurant with him was unable to move up from Boston in time, so Ma himself is stewarding the kitchen.
Just three weeks in, Asiana still has the feel of a restaurant in mid-launch. We tried to order a Japanese beer, but all the imports were sold out (Long Trail IPA and Harpoon Brewery’s UFO Hefeweizen are on tap). As we waited for our order of oysters, sashimi and lychee margarita, a plate of sushi arrived. Each piece of tuna and salmon was cut with precision and beautiful to behold, but the dish was not what we asked for. Back it went.
Soon after, the server set down a plate of fried calamari so huge and fragrant we were tempted to dive in — but, again, this wasn’t our order. We sat on our hands, sent it back and continued to wait.
After about 20 minutes, the lychee margarita arrived, lacking bite; it took a few requests to get some more lime. Sweet relief for our rumbling bellies came in the form of our sashimi appetizer — rosy-pink tuna, two pieces of hamachi and chunks of burgundy fish that we determined was bonito. Asiana gets big props for having at least four kinds of tuna on the menu, although, rather than the ribbons you might expect, this sashimi — six pieces in all — was cut into bricks. It was superbly fresh, the hamachi was almost buttery, and the bonito tasted like some kind of meat-fish hybrid.
Still, though, no oysters. Finally, a server explained that the kitchen was out of them. Would we like something else? She disappeared before we could answer.
When the rest of the food arrived, our annoyance faded. Ma and his staff clearly care about presentation and freshness, and they are generous to boot: The sushi — arranged atop well-seasoned, warm sushi rice — is cut like jewels and so large that each piece requires two bites. A coral-colored kimchi broth was well-balanced between spicy and savory, its noodles delicate and fresh. It was dense with mussels bigger than any we had ever seen, as well as hunks of salmon, scallops and shrimp.
The maki rolls at Asiana House are outsized too, and there are dozens to choose from. I went for a Scottie 2 Hottie Maki, a cylinder overstuffed with salmon and sweet, succulent slivers of mango, with torched salmon belly draped over the top. Texturally, it was slippery, but the chile-flecked mayo lent the roll a smoldering heat.
Vegetarian options are plentiful at Asiana House, and the mock-eel roll, stuffed with chewy, crunchy bits of fried tempeh, came blanketed in shiitake mushrooms and slices of avocado. It was salty, layered and delicious. My only complaint: Both rolls were heavy on the rice.
For a lighter touch on the palate, diners can choose from at least six salads, and some of them are unusual, at least in Vermont. Though the house dressing for greens was a bit heavy on Japanese mayo, the seaweed salad was sweet, crunchy, cooling and generously seasoned with sesame oil. The smoked-octopus salad was not for the faint of heart, visually speaking. The pile of tiny red octopi atop greens looked like they were having an orgy. But it was a creative, smoky and tasty snack, one I wished I’d ordered earlier.
Two hours passed between the time we sat down at Asiana House and the time we left. We had a hard time ordering everything we wanted. In a town that had a culinary hole to fill, Ma’s restaurant is off to a sputtery but still promising start. The chef seems cognizant of the challenges of opening a new place, and my guess is that feedback will not fall on deaf ears.
Asiana House, 43 State Street, Montpelier, 225-6180. asianahouse.com