Sweet—and sour—Asian cuisine in Boulder.
(out of 4)
1710 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-4575
The Draw Light Asian dishes served at reasonable prices.
The Drawback Lackluster combos are heavy on veggies and light on proteins.
Don’t Miss Crispy chicken wings, pot stickers, red curry and green-lipped mussel soup, roasted pineapple and vanilla pound cake kebabs
Vegetarian Options Vegetarian pho, spicy vegetarian Thai soup, edamame, baked vegetable samosas
P.F. Chang's China Bistro claims 193 locations in 37 states—and counting. Noodles & Co. has 203 locations in 18 states, and, despite the recession, it too is expanding. Both are multimillion-dollar companies, and David Wechsler, owner of Boulder's new modern-Asian restaurant Bimbamboo, would like a taste of their massive success. His goal is to begin (as Noodles did) in Boulder and expand from there. To accomplish this, he brought in a heavy-hitting chef, Edward Schmidt, from Range Restaurant in Aspen, to create an Asian menu that would appeal to the masses. That was more than a year ago, but the results are both sweet and sour.
"I'd like to be somewhere in between the [upscale-casual, full-service] model of P.F. Chang's and the [casual, limited-service] model of Noodles & Co.," says Wechsler. Bimbamboo's concept is easy enough to embrace, with slick, marketable decor and affordable prices, but a good portion of the menu misses the mark on both authenticity and taste.
Though seemingly effortless, Asian flavor profiles are far from simple and require a deft understanding of the cuisines and a patience for flavor layering. The results can be heavenly—think of Parallel Seventeen's sultry beef pho or Chez Thuy's zesty grilled chicken noodle bowl—but at Bimbamboo that's often not the case. The Vietnamese beef pho's ($8) weak base yields a one-note dish made worse by limp sprigs of herbs and tired clumps of bean sprouts. A Vietnamese banh mi ($9) sandwich is mostly julienned carrot when it should be a showcase of meat (traditionally roasted or grilled pork) and veggies tucked into a crispy baguette. Add to this the missing tabletop jars of homemade nuoc cham and squeeze bottles of Sriracha and you have an eatery that feels more West than East.
Salad and rice bowls ($9-$11) are overstuffed with tasteless Bimbamboo slaw and too little protein—the exception is the Thai green curry coconut chicken ($10) version of both dishes. Oddly enough, the rice bowls do not include plain white (or even brown) rice. Instead, owner Wechsler opted for two dressed-up rice recipes: one with wheat berries, lentils, and chickpeas, the other a pineapple-jasmine option. Both, however, overpower dishes in the same way that plain rice would allow them to sing.
That's not to say there aren't good—even great—dishes on Bimbamboo's menu. The delicate pan-seared pot stickers shine with fresh mint, ginger, and shrimp, and the satisfying red curry and green-lipped mussel soup ($9) is packed with veggies and pineapple, and tastes cozily of coconut milk, red curry, and lemongrass. Seoul-style chicken wings ($6)—with a sticky marinade of Sriracha, fish sauce, and lime—are especially good when dunked in the sweet, citrus dipping sauce. Likewise, the Vietnamese sliders ($8) satisfy with tender lemongrass-scented chicken stacked on griddled, mayo-slathered sesame buns. In these and other successful dishes, the hallmark cuisines of Southeast Asian countries—mainly Vietnam and Thailand with hints of Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, and India—are apparent, with clean notes of ginger, chile, and telltale herbs.
But for the purposes of franchising, a handful of successful dishes is not enough to overcome the restaurant's shortcomings. It's easy to blame the lackluster dishes on Wechsler and Schmidt's lack of experience in Asian cuisine. Wechsler's background is in the development of entertainment venues, including regional aquariums and a restaurant group known as Cafe Istanbul. To his credit, Wechsler did work for chef Barbara Tropp (China Moon Cafe in San Francisco), who is well known for her Chinese food. Schmidt, though talented (his work at the Range helped earn the restaurant the AAA Four Diamond award), does not have extensive know-how of cooking Asian food. Lack of experience alone shouldn't preclude good eats, except that in order to streamline Asian cuisine there must still be a foundation in tradition.
These challenges are only heightened by inconsistent service. Depending on when you dine, servers range from warm and knowledgeable to forgetful and extremely slow, despite the kitchen being only a few feet from every table in the dining room. One tactic in navigating service issues is to stop by for either appetizers and a drink (sip the sake-tini or the Thai lemonade infused with fresh basil and mint) or dessert. The roasted pineapple and vanilla pound cake kebabs ($6) are especially tasty, with toasted pound cake and roasted pineapple skewers dipped in a custardy rum fondue.
There are sweet notes to be found at Bimbamboo, but the restaurant isn't quite ready for expansion. With a bit of fine tuning and menu tweaking (namely an emphasis on additional proteins and traditional flavor profiles), however, the eatery could turn the corner and become the kind of place we'd be happy to see go forth and multiply.