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September 18, 2012

Alice Eats: Asian Gourmet

IMG_4607276 North Main Street, Barre, 477-7828

The influence of a dynasty is spreading around Vermont, and I'm not talking about descendants of the Allens or Chittendens. This power family includes Jerry Jiang, owner of the Asian Bistros in Winooski and Williston, and South Burlington's brand-new Hana Japanese Restaurant; his father, who owns Koto Japanese Steak House; and now uncle Jin Zhang, who has brought sushi to the Granite City with Asian Gourmet.

The space, last home to Lucia’s Italian Restaurant & Bar, is now decorated with wall hangings depicting traditional brush-painted carp. The bright setting feels appropriately austere, yet upbeat thanks to my eager server, Winki.

IMG_4608The expansive menu made it tough to pick an "Alice Eats"-appropriate amount of food. The bill of fare is a pretty ideal blend of what I expect at Asian Bistro and Koto, including sushi rolls, udon soups and even Peking duck. That's why I went for a $15.95 bento box.

That meal started with a bowl of miso soup and a green salad. The seaweed-and-tofu-filled soup's mild chicken-based broth was pleasant, if nothing special. But really, when I find a miso soup with more flavor than dishwater, it's something to celebrate.

The salad of lettuce, shredded carrots and cucumber was bathed in the same decadently un-Asian ginger dressing that I've come to love at Koto. It's sweet, creamy and has just a whisper of ginger flavor. Every time I eat it, I feel like it's going to cause me a heart attack in the most wonderful way.

IMG_4609The bento box itself provided some fun mixing and matching. First, I was asked to pick two starters. The pork-filled gyoza weren't as juicy as I might have preferred, but their vinegary sauce had an unexpected smack of heat that I adored.

I was blindsided by the yakitori. The perfectly crisp, broiled outside and juicy inside of the chubby chicken breast chunks were just like what I'd grown up eating in New York City. I hadn't had a breast meat yakitori skewer prepared as well since I'd come to Vermont. The sauce could have used a little bit more seasoning, and I would have been happy with more traditional scallions in place of the peppers and onions, but Wow! This was pretty darn close to what I've been missing in my adopted home state.

I was alarmed to see that the meat of my spicy tuna maki seemed to be chopped, not whole. This is always a little (or a lot) scary. But in this case, the chef did something interesting. Tempura flakes were mixed in with the fish, for a refreshing crunch. The roll, which was a $1 upgrade from California or salmon, didn't have the spicy taste I was after, but I still enjoyed it, sesame coating and all.

I originally asked for tonkatsu for my entrée, but was told that they'd discontinued the dish. Getting rid of such a basic item made me wonder what else on the long menu was no longer available. I tried the steak teriyaki instead.

Like the yakitori, the thin steak was broiled to perfection. Crispy fat outside, tender, beefy flavor within. The sauce was thin for my taste, apparently diluted by a bed of caramelized onions, whose sweat made the whole thing taste a bit like a British gravy. It wasn't thick enough to add much flavor to the bed of disappointingly non-glutinous brown rice on which I placed it.

IMG_4610Of course, with sushi as the main attraction, I had to try a specialty roll, too.

The artwork at right is the Sweetheart Roll. The heart-shaped construction was composed of slices of tuna wrapped with more tuna and avocado. Each slice was dotted with "spicy" mayo and a Sriracha heart. Strangely, it didn't taste particularly spicy. I still needed wasabi and ginger to get a real kick. But come on, it's so pretty, I can't fault it too much.

And I can't fault Asian Gourmet for bringing destination dining for all of Central Vermont to the Granite City.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected].

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