In today’s food world, eight out of ten diners probably have a personal food blog and there is always emphasis on the cuisine. Was it hot enough? Did they nail the classics? Are they masters of innovative fare? This is a strong focus for all the right reasons and I tend to lean that way myself, but during a recent trip to Asuka of West Chester the hospitality was so incredible there’s no way a diner could focus solely on the tantalizing creations of Chef Jimmy Chi. However, each dish was definitely notable, and one in particular, melted my culinary heart.
A big smile from the host and Chef Jimmy’s son, Gary Chi, was awaiting our arrival, followed by a courteous escort to the back of the lively restaurant. A built in bench stretched from wall to wall along the left side of Asuka’s cozy interior, paired comfortably with tables for two and free standing chairs that could easily be combined for a larger party. The walls were bright pink, not in a headache inducing type of way but more upbeat than most Japanese/Chinese restaurants which tend to play the overly sophisticated role. Playful white lights hung from a painted black ceiling and flowing woodwork surrounded the sushi bar as if to say, “this is where the magic happens.”
The crowd was decent for a Tuesday night and I recognized most diners were in a state of pure satisfaction, especially the table of two who ordered Asuka’s extravagant Love Boat. The friendly staff bustled throughout the well lit interior, cleaning tables in the blink of an eye, refilling waters right before their last sip and carrying above average conversations with their customers. At one point, I overheard a diner being asked about his daughter’s progress at West Chester University. This conversation, along with a few others throughout the night suggested that Asuka, which only opened in August of 2012, already rounded up regulars. I soon found out why.
Kim Chi, who is the daughter of Asuka’s well versed chef, was eager to offer a special meal complete with their most popular items.
“Everything that you’re going to try is a top favorite of the customers. The food is slightly different than what you would get at other restaurants. Most of the dishes started out as specials but were so liked by the diners that we plan to add them to the menu soon.”
After just ten minutes, Asuka was already receiving an a-okay in my customer service book. Their convenience rating was skyrocketing too, since the BYOB was located right off West Chester Pike in a shopping center that also contained a Wines & Spirits.
My date and I welcomed the first item with enthusiasm since it was a dish we slightly drooled over after spying it on the specials board. The chicken katsu salad featured Japanese style fried chicken mixed with a fresh, organic spring romaine, carrots and cherry tomatoes. Each bite of chicken was lightly breaded but still crispy and delicately dressed in a house citrus dressing. Kim politely advised that we monitor our intake since there was much more to come but it was such a refreshing starter that we couldn’t help but down the entire dish.
Next we moved on to a more traditional chinese item of pork dumplings. Only there was nothing traditional about the taste. In fact, it was way above traditional. Gary was happy to answer a few inquiring questions that we had about preparing a dumpling and our conversation eventually ended with the agreement that pan-fried is the way to go. The inside was tender and juicy, the dough’s texture was on spot, steamed to perfection and lightly browned for a contrasting finish. A quick dip in the accompanying soy sauce and the entire package was perfect. This dish was another one, like the first, that we couldn’t hold back on finishing.
Asuka’s sushi chef, Jackie Chen, was just as charming as the other employees. Although quiet and modest, his smile spoke more than words and his talent said the rest. We were first graced with the Asuka signature roll, a japanese delight laden with spicy tuna, lettuce, avocado, shrimp, crab meat and tobiko. The ingredients burst with flavor yet remained within the crisp Vietnamese rice paper, that is until I dipped them in chef Chen’s spicy sauce art and joyfully crunched through each bite. A similar, joy-filled consumption followed with the firecracker roll. Full of spicy crabmeat and avocado, this popular item was topped with lobster salad, and crunchy tempura flakes. Hidden under the perfectly paired toppings, which included tobiko as well, was a gentle drizzle of Sriracha—just enough to awaken your taste buds without setting off any alarms.
The spicy szechuan stir fry, on the other hand, had a very deliberate kick. Still it wasn’t the kind that hit you from the get-go, sending your tongue into a state of shock and your mind into a state of “where’s the milk?!” Instead, the spice slowly developed with each bite. Natural flavors from the onions, carrots, celery and peppers married well with the house-made, Chinese gravy and the tender shrimp served as a diverting dose of variation.
It’s more than safe to say that the dishes presented by Kim Chi during our visit exceeded our expectations. Even the dessert of fried banana bites, drizzled with honey, sprinkled with cocoa powder and served alongside their house-made green tea and red bean ice cream knocked our socks off. Don’t ask me how we finished it, but we most certainly did.
There was one dish in particular that tickled our taste buds, made us say “hmmmm” in a very good way and will play a key role in motivating our return visits—yes, plural, as in multiple return visits. This was the stuffed eggplant. Filled with a blend of shrimp and crab meat, each bite of the star dish revealed a new delicious component. The eggplant was cut thin enough so it cooked all the way through and retained Chef Chi’s perfectly selected seasonings. A lightly fried outer layer rounded out the dish when matched with the juicy, protein heavy interior. The black bean sauce provided a rich, savory touch tying everything together. I envisioned myself enjoying order after order for comfort in the winter months and bite after bite as refreshing eats when warmer weather arrived. It was my new appetizer kryptonite and I vowed to order it every chance there was, despite whatever massive meal might be looming in the future.
A closing chat with Kim revealed her father’s culinary experience.
“He’s been working in the restaurant industry for over 20 years,” she shared with pride. “At first he started as a dishwasher and interned. Nice people that he worked with continued to teach him things until he could do everything on his own.”
I understood the use of her wording “on his own” but had to smile knowing that their establishment’s success was recognizable because of several individuals. Visit soon and you’ll find Gary’s smile, Kim’s friendly chatter, Chef Chen’s talented sushi hands and Chef Chi’s innovative touches making your experience a memorable one.