Asia is the new Europe when it comes to cuisine, according to a recent NPR article. And Korean food is the star at Asian Bistro, which also offers Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
Asian Bistro has become my away-from-home kitchen, and yet there are “regulars” who come far more frequently than I. Opened in 2011 in the old Good Friends location near the Princeton Junction train station, Asian Bistro is as young and exciting as Good Friends was old and tired. In fact, Charlie Choi, the former Good Friends landlord, decided to open his own restaurant after Good Friends closed. It’s a good thing because he’s a talented chef. A Korean-American, Charlie trained as a sushi chef and has owned several restaurants in the area, including Nassau Sushi and Bagel in Princeton.
At Asian Bistro, he’s hands on, creating such wonderful Korean specialties as soondubu (soft tofu stew) and kimchi stew. Charlie’s wife makes the kimchi from veggies grown by a brother in East Windsor. Before your main dish arrives, small plates of complementary kimchi are set before you. Usually there’s a spicy cabbage kimchi, a bean sprout kimchi, crispy green beans and pickled daikon. As I hoover them up, the wait staff offers another round – I could eat it til the cows come home.
Asian food is comfort food for secular New York Jews like me, but it’s hard to find Asian restaurants that don’t douse all their offerings in wheat-infused soy sauce. Although the staff would always accommodate special dietary needs, a special gluten-free menu has just been made available.
There’s a spicy Asian seafood cioppino, usually made with wheat noodles, that can be adapted with cellophane noodles (japchae). It comes in a tureen for one, filled to the brim with green mussels, baby clams, shrimp, baby bok choy and crunchy tree ear mushrooms, all in a potent red broth. When you swallow, it soothes the soul. The seafood tastes like it was caught an hour before it was thrown into the pot.
Another favorite is the codfish stew, with the tender flesh falling off the bone. It’s so full of spice and garlic, nature’s antibiotics, and a single serving is enough to feed a village for a week. Same with the cioppino, although it’s so good you find yourself slurping way too much in a single sitting.
Drunken noodles, from the Thai menu, give all the satisfaction of a broad noodle without the gluten, and received the official nod of approval from a Thai friend. “Not too sweet and not too salty, with subtle flavor,” she pronounced.
On a recent evening, John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, was seen sitting at a table with his son, eating pad Thai. Tables are close, and everyone visits with their neighbors. There are many Korean, as well as Indian, Thai and Jewish diners. Everyone is laughing and happy.
Those who can eat meat and glutinous dishes enjoyed the bulgogi, a marinated beef served with rice, and clam noodle soup, with a spicy clear broth filled with tasty scallions, cucumber, pepper and clams – again, with leftovers that could feed a village.
Other favored dishes were tofu kimchi stirfry and hwe dup bap. There’s so much to sample, and the “two halves” feature allows you to pick from two categories. The menu is illustrated with sumptuous photos of most of the dishes – as yummy as they look, they taste even better.
The front end of the restaurant is for self-service – you order at the counter and pick up when your buzzer goes off. Charlie’s daughter Jamie, friendly and pretty, runs the front of the house. In the back we usually enjoy table service with Cynthia, a West Windsor native who’s friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. For the ultimate Asian Bistro experience, you can reserve a private room that comfortably seats about 12.
The ambience is clean and efficient, with wood-grained laminate tables and floors and abstract geometric artwork made from burlap. Service is always attentive and efficient, and bowls of seafood shells are removed promptly.
After an enormous meal, who can contemplate dessert? But we couldn’t resist the mochi ice cream, little pillows of red bean ice cream covered with the rice-based wrapping, so comforting in the contrast of cold to dough.
Did I mention that the prices will remind you of the 1980s? But shhh, don’t tell too many people – let’s save this place for ourselves.
31 Station Drive
Ambiance: Noisy multilingual fun
Cuisine: Chinese Japanese Korean Vietnamese Thai
Vegetarian/vegan/ gluten free: Options scattered throughout the menus and many dishes can be adapted.
Prices: Appetizers/salads: $4-$10; Entrees: $8-$20
Hours: Mon 11am – 10pm Tue 11am – 10pm Wed 11am – 10pm Thurs 11am – 10pm Fri 11am – 10:30pm Sat 11am – 10:30pm Sun 11am – 10pm