AYA Cookhouse opened this spring in the former location of Eurasia Cafe and Wine Bar in Mount Pleasant. Eurasia was an appropriate portmanteau and precursor for the Pan-Asian culinary idiom currently expressed on the menu at AYA Cookhouse.
Owners Kelly and Tony Chu of Red Orchids China Bistro success in West Ashley have brought their Asian sensibilities to a mash-up of global cuisines that make the menu at AYA read like the republic of food. According to Tony Chu, the restaurant's name means "for the love of Asia" and reflects his respect for the diverse cuisines of the continent.
Considering the heated discussions that were generated after The New York Times published Francis Lam's piece "Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes" (May 30, 2012) and the great debate that rose as to whether it is possible to cook foods outside your "familial roots," Chu embraces a broad base of Asian regional cuisines with the confidence of a culinary linguist.
Gastro-tourism populates the offerings: Indonesian satays, Japanese tempura and ramen, Vietnamese pho and buns, Korean kimchi and dak gangjeong, Thai noodles and regional Chinese dishes. Ingredients cross borders with ease as the foods of street vendors, noodle shops and pho bars are redefined in the kitchen at AYA. Authenticity and identity are blurred, and considering the current exchanges between Lam and Huang on the merits of cooking "outside familial roots," AYA provides an engaging riff on techniques and regional specialties.
This is not to say there has not been a little bit of "lost in translation" among the offerings. Chu has hired a new chef and the menu has been tweaked a few times since opening in April.
Here Tater Tots are lashed with chili oil, pepper flakes and the numbing effects of Szechuan peppercorns; fans of the closed Green Door's "tots" now have a recourse, albeit east of the Cooper.
Rice forms the foundation for "mapo gnocchi," more mochi-like than semolina. Harissa seasons yogurt and ginger perfumes beurre blanc. Wontons are plumped with mirepoix and plated on red pepper coulis. Caesar dressing coats kale leaves and La Chong (lap cheong) sausage that translates from the Chinese as "winter intestines" adds texture and chew to this salad riff.
Ham hocks' smoke perfuses braises, and Southern fried chicken via China and Korea appears as the Korean cult favorite dak gangjeong (chicken prepared in the manner of a Korean confectionery). The eggshell crust that crackles when you take a bite of this trendy chicken recipe was missing from AYA's preparation but the sweet heat glaze of gochujang chili paste comforted with its cinnabar coloring and modulated pungency, not searing heat.
Chef Mathew Fairfield has been tweaking and tailoring the menu on a daily basis. The squid salad and rice grits have been 86'd. Ramen with house-made noodles and 48-hour stock made an appearance. These traditional alkaline noodles with their toothsome chew have yet to be mastered in the kitchen and they lose the race of maintaining their resiliency before you finish slurping the soup. The ramen is topped with two small bites of tender fried chicken, nori sheets, bok choy, tea-poached egg and bean sprouts - but the ramen lacked the progressive intensity this dish foists on the eater.
The menu is nicely stacked with small plates that knit together well if you prefer to eat in that manner. Wontons, pork and chicken buns, and the popular Xi'an street snack of scallion-layered flatbread are all well-executed.
Many dishes are braised, steamed or stir-fried, so Hotei, the god of good health, is honored: steamed pork rib (fen zhen ro), sauteed chicken (doe tsi gi), braised meatballs (shi tzi tao), edamame, and string beans, to name a few options.
Vegetable sides garner high marks for uncomplicated preparations and freshness. Bok choy is simply steamed; cucumber slices are tossed in a vinaigrette of basil and ginger, offering cleansing refreshment to the palate; and sauteed mushrooms are cloaked with a piquant ginger beurre blanc sauce - yin-yang of a culinary kind.
Rice is white or brown and accompanies most dishes as appropriate.
Servers are well schooled on the menu and the heat factor: the Tater Tots are a jolt to the tongue while the kimchi embraced the temperate zone of Scovil units and the staff clarifies these ranges and walks you through the flavor balances inherent in Asian cooking models.
Tony Chu's passion for wine is demonstrated in his wine list, including wines from the Frank Family Vineyard of Napa Valley fame. Beers complement the menu and range from a local Westbrook White Thai to regional Asian selections.
Desserts - a cheesecake, chocolate pate, ginger creme brulee and benne seed cake - are made in-house but bring a cumbersome ending to the kaleidoscopic flavor integrations of the menu. Bring on Kelly Chu's creative spin on ice cream.
AYA, east of the Cooper, is an homage to Far Eastern culinary canons. The ancient Taoists would be pleased as the Five Elements of fire, water, earth, wood and metal are revealed in its harmonious design pattern. Texture and pattern dominate as bronze and red accents warm the space with their tempered sheen. A wood block wall punctuates dimension into the dining room lit by wheels of Edison light bulbs.
Possibly the only feng shui misstep is the lighting that makes it a challenge to see the vibrant colors on your dinner plate.
Don't miss the monocle clad water buffalo adorning the front window. It's Chu's recognition of the importance of this noble beast in agriculture providing labor, persistence, endurance, balance and strength - qualities required in any restaurant operation whatever cuisine you love.