Bambu, a recent arrival in Mt. Pleasant’s Moultrie Shopping Center, describes itself as an Asian Bistro and Gourmet Sushi Bar. It’s a distinctive new player in the area, and it’s starting to get a lot of attention from local diners and revelers.
When you first enter the restaurant, you can see why. The interior is a blend of modernistic décor with enough Far East touches to make it seem exotic. The ceiling is dotted with funky lamps with strands of multicolored glass beads that look like jellyfish tentacles. The theme is extended by the big circular aquarium mounted in the wall along the dining room, in which pale white jellyfish glow under black lights. Big booths line the front wall, high-backed with a vaguely Oriental floral pattern, and the long full bar has translucent, backlit panels on the front that cast off a gentle orange glow.
Outside, a patio has plenty of tall tables and a big square booth that can seat a dozen people around a burbling fountain. Inside, there’s a sushi bar with low chairs from which you can watch the chefs slicing sashimi and molding rice.
At most sushi restaurants, I’ve had great luck with the omakase, or chef’s choice. At Bambu, the Chef’s Choice (starting at $19.95 for seven pieces) comes with the chef’s selection of nigiri or sashimi plus a florette of six tuna roll slices. The choices on my last visit were about as run-of-the-mill as you can get: two salmon, two hot-pink tuna, two mackerel, and one piece of white fish that I think was snapper. The nigiri was competent but completely unremarkable, and it couldn’t possibly have stretched the chef’s culinary muscles.
The rest of the crowd was apparently going for more complicated rolls and specialty sushi, for the bar was continually stacked with white square plates holding complicated concoctions with carved vegetable flowers, tall rice-roll towers, and long squiggles of red, green, and yellow sauce. The glamorous plates look appealing, but if the chef’s choice can be so pedestrian, one can only wonder how good the fancy stuff could be.
Sushi is just half the picture. The other is the Asian bistro, which offers a wide-ranging fusion of Eastern and Western flavors.
Bambu doesn’t have a soup of the day. It’s the soup of the moment, which has a pleasingly Zen ring to it but conjures up visions of cooks getting hit by bursts of inspiration and whipping up new recipes right there in the middle of the dinner rush. (One feels for the poor servers, who probably have to keep going back to the kitchen every few minutes to ask, “OK, so what’s the soup now?”). On one of my visits, the moment had brought an intriguing and utterly Occidental gazpacho. Pale orange with a drizzle of white crème fraiche and sliced green onions across the top, it had an unusual blend of spices I couldn’t quite identify, but it was cool and refreshing and a nice enough starter for the meal. The regular soups include the requisite miso ($4.95) and the decidedly non-standard Shanghai she-crab soup ($5.95).
There are plenty of salads, too. The Bambu signature salad ($8.95) is quite nice — mesclun with Napa cabbage, edamame, red pepper, bean sprouts, and snow peas in a delicate citrus-ginger vinaigrette that keeps things pleasingly light.
The appetizer menu blends American bar grub with Eastern flavors. The sliders sampler (three for $7.95 or five for $9.95) lets you choose from chicken or beef patties, grilled teriyaki tuna, crab cakes, and tofu. There are cutesy choices , like the Chicken Lollipops ($7.95) — chicken drummettes with a choice of Asian-inspired sauces — and the “Thai One on Shrimp” ($8.95), shrimp tempura in a spicy sauce. There’s also the more traditional, like spring rolls ($7.95 for three) and vegetable tempura (also $7.95).
Bambu’s entrées reveal the risky side of an Asian-fusion menu. The concept gives a chef a broad palette of flavors and techniques to use, but it makes it really easy to throw a bunch of stuff together that doesn’t really work. In Bambu’s case, there’s just way too much for a diner to choose from: dozens of dishes ranging from sushi to pho to spinach dip to noodle bowls to beef tenderloin. The further you get from the basic soups, salads, and appetizers, the dicier the offering becomes, and the more the presentation masks the substance.
At lunch time, the Bento box ($9.95) looks absolutely lovely. A black, multi-compartment tray with a red-painted interior is filled with beautifully garnished treats, like an elegant ball of white jasmine rice topped with black sesame seeds and green onion curls. It includes a cup of soup, a salad, and the “chef’s and sushi chef’s choice” of the day. The choices I received were a competent if unremarkable rainbow roll along with stir-fried beef with onions and red and green peppers in a sauce that was a little heavy on the salt and cornstarch.
On the dinner menu, the Bambu fried rice ($13.95) tosses together beef, chicken, and lobster along with eggs, bamboo shoots, and vegetables. It’s a passable meal, but one that is pretty bland and not something one would come beating down the door to have again.
Then there’s the Pomegranate Duck ($21.95), one of Bambu’s specialty dishes. The description is menu-writing at its most ambitious: a Maple Leaf duck breast flavored with orange zest, star anise, cinnamon, and a pomegranate reduction, accompanied by scallion potato puree and seasonal veggies. It sounds can’t-miss.
But, apart from a tiny, tiny pink center, the duck is overcooked and chewy, with a glaze on top that’s caramelized until almost black. As I worked my way through the half dozen slices, it kept reminding me of some long-lost flavor memory, and I kept reaching but failing to identify what it was. Then it hit me: the unmistakable taste of backyard BBQ chicken, the kind with a too-sugary sauce that gets grilled to a charred black crust. The scallion potato puree is quite salty, and the seasonal vegetables (in this case, a not-so-exotic blend of carrots, purple onions, green peppers, and red peppers) are even saltier. They don’t give the duck breast much help, though it desperately needs some.
But, there’s a lot of good to be said about Bambu. The outdoor deck is appealing, and the big square bench with the fountain in the middle is a great gathering place for drinks with friends on one of those summer nights that aren’t too blazing hot.
And plenty of people have noticed. On an ordinary Wednesday night, the joint is loud and hopping, the crowd growing as happy hour fades into dinner dusk. The outdoor deck is packed and gets even more crowded as the live acoustic music kicks in. Three fast-rolling chefs are going to town behind the sushi bar, and half a dozen colorful plates are perched on top of the glass cases at any one time, waiting for servers to run them out to the floor. Inside the dining room, the conversation rises from a buzz to a roar. Bambu seems to be striking a popular chord.
Ultimately, I have to say that I like the style of the place. Between the big bar inside and the great outdoor patio, I can see why in just a few short months it has become a hot spot for dropping by with a few friends for drinks and appetizers. But, when it comes to the meals themselves, Bambu leaves me with one nagging wonder: how can food so intentionally exotic and edgy end up, well, so boring?