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Thursday, October 6,2011

Asian food for all tastes

By Clay Fong

Pan-Asian  variety is the name of the game at Pearl Street’s Moongate Asian Bistro, which features a diverse and affordable Asian menu. Classic Chinese-American cookery is one of the stars of the show here,  with such venerable chestnuts as Kung Pao chicken and broccoli beef on tap. Moongate also offers several Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese selections, including pad thai, sushi and Saigon soft shell crab. Besides the wide-reaching menu, this restaurant also differentiates itself from its brethren through its comfortable but contemporary ambience, which decidedly elevates the place above hole-in-the-wall status.

This Eastern Hemisphere bistro dishes out reasonably priced fare at both lunch and dinner. For example, a lunch portion of Buddha’s feast, a meatless mix of vegetables and tofu, goes for $6.50 at lunch and $8.50 at dinner. Lunch entrées come with egg roll and fried rice, while dinner selections are sided with steamed rice.

Seeking Chinese-American guilty pleasures of the fried, sweet and salty variety, colleague Amanda and I began a weekday lunch with a $6.50 starter of coconut shrimp and $4.75 crab Rangoon. Each arrived piping hot, crisply textured and without a hint of grease. The subtle sweetness of coconut played nicely off the delicately flavored but generously proportioned shrimp.

While I never had crab Rangoon until college, I have to confess that ever since then, I’ve developed a closet addiction to this strangely compelling treat. Moongate’s version certainly fulfilled my cravings, with a creamy, almost fluid, cheese filling accented by a hint of crab.

Colleague Amanda opted for a lunch of $7.50 fish filet in black bean sauce, sided by fried rice and pleasingly crunchy egg roll. The fried whitefish was a bit more accessible than the old-school Chinatown version of steamed seafood and pungent black bean. In this instance, the fermented bean was toned down a bit, which made it more user-friendly to the palate accustomed to less strongly flavored Chinese- American classics like sesame chicken.

I opted for a heaping bowl of $9.50 Japanese udon noodles in soup with a side of shrimp and vegetable tempura. While this is a simple dish, there’s plenty of ways to mess it up (i.e. soggy noodles, overly salty broth, etc.), but I was happy to see that Moongate had averted these potential pitfalls. The thick noodles had just the right amount of textural give, and the broth was as good as you’ll get in a dedicated Japanese eatery. What made this soup stand out was a fragrant aroma of black mushroom, which nicely complemented the julienned carrots, cabbage strips and baby bok choy in the soup.

The quality of these ingredients rendered the tempura darn near superfluous. While these portions of shrimp, mushroom and sweet potato may have benefited from a lighter batter, the seafood and veggies encased within had achieved the correct degree of doneness and flavor.

One of the nice things about Moongate Asian Bistro, besides affordable prices, is that it’s ideal for a group of people who have divergent tastes. There’s plenty of tofu and plant-based selections for the vegetarians, while the fan of Thai cuisine can easily tuck into a curry or bowl of chicken coconut soup. Prompt service also makes this inviting spot a fine place for a workday lunch, where one can enjoy a flavorful sit-down meal in a short time.

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