A Tale of Two Aja’s
On a recent Monday night I took the plunge and went to the new Aja Pacific Kitchen. Named after the Steely Dan album, Aja Pacific Kitchen opened a few months ago in the spot on NE Fremont vacated by The Dining Room and Marco’s Cafe. With the track record of failures in that location, I was anxious to see how this incarnation would compare to those that had gone before.
If you have been to the Dining Room, not much has changed on the inside, at least not until you get to the menu. When I first checked it out, I had a bad feeling. There is such a thing as Asian fusion, but this seemed like fusion gone overboard — fusion just to be trendy. This is not necessarily a good thing. Many dishes had wasabi, sesame, or Koda rice to give an Asian flair with Korean leanings, but others like Grandma Thayers Meatloaf, curry rubbed chicken, or porcupine shrimp with shredded filo and sweet chili dipping sauce seemed out of place. The general feeling was a lack of focus in the kitchen leading to a hodgepodge of different culinary directions.
Never one to be scared off by a menu, I tasted four appetizers and three entrees that evening. With the exception of the salmon entree, every dish had major flaws. The entire experience was so disappointing I decided not to punish myself by going back again, but rather skip the entire review.
Over the next few days I started reading comments others had made about their experiences at Aja. Though most weren’t entirely positive, it seemed everyone had a better experience than I did. Then it hit me; I had gone on a Monday, which often has substitute chefs. With that I realized I owed them another try so went back the following week. My second experience was different in so many ways it was like being in an entirely different restaurant. This leaves me in a great quandary: do I report on the first meal, the second meal, or both? I guess I’ll try to cover both.
Small Plates: I like to start with simple dishes because it tells a lot about how the kitchen is working. We started with something anyone can make: Edamame. The serving was large; however, instead of the cooking water being salted as much as it should be, Brown Hawaiian salt (also called alaea salt) was served on the side to be sprinkled on top. Unfortunately the Edamame is cold and the brown salt is not flakey, so it doesn’t melt down, but rather sits like little brown lumps and falls onto the plate when you pick up the bean pod, leaving no flavor. ($4.00) Three dipping sauces that had little flavor accompanied an appetizer special of very cold asparagus. So much Hawaiian Salt was sprinkled over the dish that it overpowered everything else. It looked pretty, but I found myself trying to pick the salt out of the sauces and brush it off of the asparagus ($4.00). Kalbi beef skewers with Koda Rice and pickled vegetables and rice were excellent. Kalbi is a slightly sweet and salty traditional Korean marinade. The beef was tender and flavorful ($7.00). Ota tofu is made here in Portland. An appetizer of crispy fruitwood smoked Ota tofu with three dipping sauces came to the table rather cool on the first visit the second time piping hot. Served at the correct temperature, this was one of the better tofu’s I have had, smoky and almost meat-like with decent sauces for $6.00. Diver Scallop “Cigars” with wasabi aioli and Asian slaw were just terrific. Great flavor, beautiful presentation, imaginative concept. The most expensive small plate at $9.00, but worth it.
Soups & Salads: I tried a Country Style Miso Soup with Udon and choice of smoked chicken or Ota Tofu on both visits ($6.00). It is substantial in size, a meal in itself, but both times it lacked subtle Miso flavor. It reminded me of chicken noodle soup. The pan seared beef salad with romaine with red pepper vinaigrette and fried noodle (their English, not mine) was darn good with the meat meltingly tender and a nice Korean influence to the sauce. Though a bit overdressed, this was a hit at $9.00. The standard mixed greens was nothing special. I didn’t care for the dried cranberries sprinkled over the top; they just seemed a bit out of place with the overall theme. The salads were all soaked with just average dressings.
Big Plates: Cedar Plank Wild Oregon Salmon with Chinese Black Bean Aioliand green rice was $16.00. This dish was generally good, the flakey salmon actually arriving atop the plank. The green rice had cilantro, mint, and basil which was a bit over the top, but reasonably enjoyable. Accompanying greens were well cooked. This was the best dish of the evening. We also tried both a Misty Isle Hamburger and White Bean Burger with Tillamook Cheddar, Korean house pickles and aioli on an artisan bun $8.50. The meat was excellent – Misty Isle beef is Black Angus from a small producer in Washington State. I didn’t like the Korean pickles, but that was just me, not their fault. The buns were just barely heated, not really toasted and were sweet. We looked and couldn’t find any aioli, so finally asked for catsup. These burgers have good potential; they just need to work out the kinks.
On the first visit, nothing could have prepared me for Curry Rubbed Draper Breast of Chicken with Braised Cabbage, Apple Pear Chutney and Koda Rice $14.00. The chicken was blackened to the point that you could taste nothing else, no trace of curry with the meat overcooked and dry. The chutney was way too sweet, and too plentiful, soaking into the rice. That was too bad because Koda Rice from California’s Central Valley can be interesting — complex and a bit nutty, but very subtle. Unfortunately the overpowering sauce mitigated any benefit. On the second visit, the chicken was properly cooked with only a little bit of char with a nice subtle curry taste to offset the sweetness. The accompanying Braised Cabbage was just fine. We are talking completely different experiences here.
Service was fair. Soft drinks ordered at the beginning came halfway through the appetizers and sat empty far too long before an offer to refill. The check came before we were offered desserts. When we asked questions about the dishes the server had to go ask someone for the answers. On the second visit, service was excellent and up to the standards I would normally expect, though at one point the entrees arrived before the appetizer plates were removed, necessitating our holding them until the server could empty her arms.
Desserts at $5.00 were just fine. Ginger cake with brown butter glaze was loaded with flavor. A lemon tart with raspberry coulis also met with our approval.
Wine list was short but interesting, everything from a $190 Chateau Pichon Longueville to a $14.00 Duck Pond Pinot. Ten reds, seven whites, 4 sake’s, and a good selection of by the glass pours. Pricing made no sense at all. The Pichon was around a 100% markup while a 1997 Caymus Cabernet was an absolute steal at $115 – below average retail price.
I think with more focus towards a single direction and more attention to the details, Aja could really be good. I just hope they can get things together quickly enough to survive. In the meantime, I’d stay away Sunday and Monday.
(503) 287-5400 3499 NE 24th Ave, Portland. Open 7 days. Mon-Fri 11am-9pm; Sat-Sun 11am-8pm
One star out of 4