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East to the Waterfront

As its name implies, Aysia 101 is a survey course. Some items don't impress, but variety is key.

October 22, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Pacific Rim comes lapping onto the shores of Middle America at the regally appointed Aysia 101 in Newport Beach. This is Orange County's most ambitious Asian restaurant. And, as the cutesy name implies, Aysia 101 is a crash course in a wide (but not overly exotic) variety of Asian dishes.

It's in the enormous glass-and-steel building fronting Newport Harbor, which used to be the Honolulu-based seafood restaurant John Dominis. The main dining room has a '30s Deco feel, while the central bar area has a Temple of Doom ambience, with gargoyles that stare back at you while you finish that premium martini or tropical rum drink. Upstairs, on weekends, a band plays and the snazzy parquet dance floor is crowded with hard-bodies in designer wear.

The restaurant is filled with stunning Oriental objets d'art and elegant Indonesian teak furniture, hand-picked by Executive chef John Sharpe's Chinese-Malaysian wife, Patricia Fontaine, who doubles as hostess.

It may seem odd to sit on a Balinese-style rooftop terrace, under colorful paper umbrellas, while gazing out onto yachts that will be lining up for the Boat Parade in a few weeks, but that's the cultural mishegoss that is the Southland. You know you love it.

Sharpe is well known for his stewardship of Topaz Cafe, Diva and Bistro 201. Here he has put together a menu of appealing dishes from China, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, with occasional forays into Korea, the Philippines and . . . Laguna Beach. Foodwise, it's more overview than seminar, though Sharpe has been known to go into much greater culinary depth at theme dinners at Topaz, which is in the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

You have the option to start with sushi, a popular choice for this fashion-conscious town. The restaurant is equipped with a sleek, modern sushi bar, and the young sushi chef, from Japan, turns out a wide selection of delicious hand rolls and sea creatures perched on clumps of vinegared rice.

Still, sushi is available practically everywhere on PCH, and by sticking to sushi you'd miss the point of Aysia 101. This kitchen prepares dishes you don't always find near the beach, such as sun-dried anchovies stir-fried with peanuts, chiles and garlic, or a gooey Malaysian beef rendang, not to mention dim sum, interesting noodle dishes and an especially good range of warm entree salads.

The menu is extensive, so it is no small task to plan a meal here. My strategy would be to start with lighter dishes, such as dim sum appetizers and salads, then work up to the heavy hitters, appetite permitting.

The stir-fried anchovies are gossamer-light and as crunchy as potato chips, but they're also loaded with flavor and bite. Minced chicken, water chestnuts, black mushroom and pine nuts is a deliciously multi-textured snack eaten burrito-style in romaine leaves. The best of the sates, those spicy miniature kebabs on wooden skewers, is an Indonesian-inspired beef filet crusted with pepper, served with a spicy peanut sauce.

Among the salads, try the Chinese steamed chicken with cold rice noodles and cucumber. It has a piquant, pleasing sesame dressing, and the combination of warm steamed chicken and cold noodles gets your attention in a hurry. Naked shrimp salad is bland compared with its Thai counterparts. This one is grilled shrimp on greens in a tame lemon grass and lime vinaigrette. Give me the fiery Thai version any day.

The soups I've tasted here also seemed to be holding something back. The creamed corn and crab soup was OK, but I would have liked more crab and less corn. Tom kha gai, the famous Thai-style chicken coconut soup, was so rich with coconut cream you could probably stand a spoon in it, but it was almost completely without fire or spice.

*

There are dozens of meat and vegetable dishes to choose from, and a few stand out. The salt-and-pepper prawns are memorable because the portion is a pound of fresh, plump shrimp stir-fried with a judicious amount of red chiles and sliced onion. Korean-style barbecue beef ribs are lean and garlicky, redolent of sesame oil and smoke.

Kway teow is Malaysian flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, bok choy and eggs. Aysia 101 serves an addictive platter of this stuff. My favorite vegetable dish here is Hakka-style braised eggplant--four or five Japanese eggplants, blanketed in a rich brown sauce.

Sharpe and company take more chances with dessert, which is a good thing. Ice kachang is a glass dish filled with palm seeds, sliced mangos and other tropical fruits, plus vanilla ice cream, and it is a refresher. A delightful steamed coconut custard is served in a hollowed-out coconut shell, and a good tapioca pudding is topped with coconut milk, peanuts and corn. A frothy ginger souffle, served with whipped cream and a tropical fruit compote, is about as close to fusion as the dessert list gets.

It's hard not to have a good time at this restaurant, even if the cooking doesn't pull out all the stops to be uncompromisingly Asian. I guess that's why they named this place Aysia 101. I can't wait to sign up for the second semester.

Aysia 101 is moderate to expensive. Dim sum are $6.88 to $8.88. Soups are $3 to $11. Salads are $4.88 to $12.88. Main dishes are $7.88 to $23.88. Desserts are $4 to $7.

BE THERE

Aysia 101, 2901 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (949) 631-3242. 6-10 Sunday-Thursday, 6-11 Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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