Tuesday, January 17, 2012
I thought, when I went to Aja, that I was going to an Asian Restaurant. The name, which is pronounced like the continent, and description added to my thought that I was at an Asian restaurant not to mention that the Executive Chef, Ariel Bagadiong is Asian himself. It describes itself as an urban, greenmarket, Asian cafe. While the description implied to me that the food would probably be seasonal and might not be something like sesame chicken, I wasn't expecting a huge departure from that. The restaurant is in the Dana Hotel and has a glass wall that looks out on State Street. The restaurant is long and narrow with the dining room actually occupying two floors. The bar is long and made of a dark wood and you walk by it to get to the dining area. I ate in the lower dining area which had the long glass wall which I already described, a gas fireplace on the back wall, and a wall opposite the window that is wood and curved like a cresting wave. The ceiling is concrete and it has hanging lighting. While it was definitely modern, I could still see it as an Asian Restaurant.
I was seated at the back of the restaurant which was fine because I was able see the entire restaurant. When I was looking at the menu, I was also brought a tray of pickled vegetables. Call it either an Amuse Bouche or the equivalent of the bread course. The tray was divided in to three sections and contained a different vegetable (with a different pickling liquid for each). On one side were the sliced, pickled cucumbers. They were sliced pretty thinly, were pretty crisp, and were like fresh refrigerator pickles. The center section contained pickled daikon, They were crispy and sour and actually my favorite of the pickled vegetables. I have to think that they used a cider vinegar because it tasted to me kind of like jicama. The last was an Asian slaw. It contained cabbage and carrots and kind of a sweet pickle. It was nice and a good start to a surprising dinner.There is a sushi bar at Aja and while it looked good, I was interested in the rest of the menu. I would say that this is truly an Asian-American fusion. Many of the items look like things that you might find on an American restaurant menu but Asian ingredients and spices are used. For the appetizer, I got a crab cake. It looks like a fairly standard crab cake and the sauce looked like the Hollandaise sauce that you would expect to see with a standard crab cake but the sauce was actually a sesame mustard aioli. The crab cake also had scallions and garlic, was topped by cilantro, and topped sliced pickled daikon. It looked nice, tasted good, and the daikon was a nice surprise. I have to think that a different pickle was used for the daikon used in this dish than those used at the beginning because it was pink and slightly sweet.
For my entree, I went with the seared strip steak. With all of the very good strip steaks in Chicago, I am not sure why I went with the steak. I think what it was that there were so many things that looked interesting that I decided to go simple. While I wouldn't exactly consider it Asian, and it certainly was not the best steak that I have ever had, it was good. It was served with lemon soy onions and coriander shortbread. With my entree, I also got a couple of sides, Korean Potato Salad and Marinated Mushrooms. When I think of potato salad, I generally don't think of Korea. It looked and had the same texture of a standard potato salad but there was something in the seasoning where I could see Korean. The marinated mushrooms were much more obviously Asian. The marinade had sesame, white soy and coriander. They were very good and if I thought I could have gotten away with it, I would have picked up the dish containing the mushrooms and drank the marinade.My dessert was the Thai Coffee Tiramisu. It was a nice layered wedge served with some mocha ice cream topped with mint. The tiramisu itself has the cocoa, coffee, and a layer of coffee ice cream. It was a very good finish to a very surprising and good dinner. While many dishes at Aja are not obviously Asian, the garnishes and spices give the dishes an Asian flare.