- 1767 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY, 40205
- (502) 451-2749
- Overall User Rating:
- (2 ratings)
- 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday
- Official Web Site:
There’s something vaguely unsettling about the dining room at Asiatique. It’s a featureless space awash in pale, spectral light. I suppose it’s fair to describe it as minimalist — though to be clear, it’s patternless and arrhythmic, lacking even the repetitive gestures we often find in minimalist music and visual art.
I suspect that for some diners it’s an off-putting environment — more like a sensory deprivation chamber than a dining room. But it’s always seemed to me that if you submit to the ambience (and perhaps turn off all those electronic distractions in your pocket or purse), the empty space serves to heighten your sensory awareness of the dining experience.
And really the only thing about the Asiatique experience that seems featureless and vague is the space itself. Managing partner Pabs Sembillo, general manager Jason Burns and chef-owner Peng Looi are masters of personal service and gutsy cuisine (and you’ll find those on display whether you visit the dining room or the bar or drop in late some night at the restaurant’s more casual “Lounge A”).
Looi came to the United States from Malaysia (via England), and at Asiatique, he’s always focused on East-West fusion cuisine, with prominent accents paying tribute to the foods of Malaysia (Looi is also chef-owner at August Moon Chinese Bistro, where the Chinese cuisine is also influenced by Malaysian ideas).
A few weeks ago, Asiatique unveiled a new seasonal menu — one full of startling pleasures that feed the eye and mind as well as the palate.
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re interested in seeing how Looi weds his homeland’s traditional flavors with American tastes, you might order his Angus rib-eye, served rendang-style ($27).
In Malaysia and Indonesia, rendangs are made by simmering cheap cuts of meat for long periods of time in rich mixtures of coconut milk and spices (including cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, coriander and others). Looi rubs a high-quality piece of beef in those ingredients — long enough that the flavor permeates the meat — then grills the steak medium rare and assembles it on a plate with luscious risotto (inspired by a classic Chinese dish, Hainanese chicken rice), grilled baby bok choy and a generous quantity of roasted shallots, and finishes the plate with moody washes of color — hints of orange and cilantro — as translucent as an improvised watercolor.
A hefty bowl of duck nachos ($9) would serve as a starter (or bar snack) for three or four people — and would overwhelm a single diner. Good-sized cubes of rich duck rest in a spicy, beige-colored miso aioli that makes a fine complement to the meaty riches — and will gradually set your tongue on fire.
More colorful — and more fun from a textural standpoint — is a splendid shrimp starter ($8.50) that might serve four — but only if all four are the generous sharing types. And this is one of those dishes that might well turn even your most generous friend into a greedy miser.
It’s a dish with all the crunch and spice you can imagine (maybe more than you can imagine, unless you’re a regular at Asiatique). The classic Chinese “five-spice” combination (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn and fennel seeds) is perfectly balanced in this dish, infusing the wok-fried shrimp (and asparagus and scallions) with flavors that whirl faster than images in a spinning kaleidoscope.
If Looi’s Angus rendang invokes Malaysian influences, his roasted Corvina ($25) simply defies regional definitions. He covers a thick fillet of firm white fish with a miso glaze and roasts it until the surface is as dark as tree bark — while still preserving the succulent moisture in the middle. This dish, too, gets plated with baby bok choy, plus a pile of curried red lentils — and a finishing touch in the form of shrimp oil.
Although Asiatique is among the gems of the city’s fine-dining scene, it’s worth bearing in mind that Looi’s cuisine can also be sampled in affordable small-plate form in the downstairs Lounge A, where the kitchen has long dished up items like spring rolls stuffed with goat cheese and crabmeat ($5), an ever-so-spicy take on grilled calamari ($5), lush pork belly sliders ($6), and an addictive ground lamb concoction that delivers plenty of spicy kick ($6).
By the way, if you like the five-spice mixture that flavors that shrimp start, you’re gonna love Asiatique’s pumpkin-walnut cake. It looks like a pretty standard piece of cake — a big thick wedge with a thick coat of caramel-colored icing that looks like old-fashioned spice cake. But that icing is ctually five-spice icing. That’s the kind of fusion that could lead to world peace.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at email@example.com.