Bambu: Pan-Asian Cuisine

Tucked into a pocket of the Larson Creek Shopping Center, Bambu offers fare as pleasing to the palate as it is to the eye.

Over the years, I have eaten a handful of times at Vinny's Italian Kitchen next door but never found an occasion to dine at the small Pan-Asian establishment until I spied Bambu's score of 100 in the county's monthly restaurant inspection.

The score was enough to influence my husband and I to dine there on a recent Tuesday evening.

Reservations are recommended, as the small venue fills quickly. We did not make reservations, but fortunately it worked to our benefit, as we were seated at the last available table on the patio outside. The evening was pleasant, and Bambu provides a lush green habitat on the patio. Bamboo (the plant), potted greenery, herbs and a fountain muffled the noises coming from the parking lot, and heat lamps curbed the cooling September temperature.

On Tuesdays, all vegetarian entrees are 15 percent off, so we requested Thai vegetable spring rolls ($6.95) as we perused the lengthy and sophisticated menu.

Selections were created by Bambu's executive chef Adam Ward with the help of local restaurateur Billy Harto, owner of Ashland's Thai Pepper. Ward attended culinary school in San Francisco and worked as a chef there and in Hawaii for some time before returning to Southern Oregon to work at Thai Pepper. In November 2001, Ward and Harto opened Bambu, and in 2006, Ward assumed ownership.

While several of the menu items were adapted from Thai Pepper, Ward also brought more Pacific island influence to the table, literally.

Ward's innovative entrees incorporate bold flavors not often found in Western food, including lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

Popular menu items are Tiger Rolls ($6.95) with cream cheese, crab flakes and chili sauce; Pacific Rim Crab Cakes ($6.95), served with a red curry aioli; Shanghai Baby Back Ribs ($15.95); Sesame and Macadamia Crusted Mahi ($17.95) and my personal order — Curry Basil Salmon ($17.95). The menu is divided into small plates, ranging in price from $4 to $10.95, and big plates, ranging from $10.95 to $17.95. Lunch items cost less.

While I spoiled myself with salmon, Sean chose the more traditional pad thai with chicken ($13.95).

According to Asian tradition, meals are served family style.

"That way you are not limited to one flavor profile for dinner, but can choose something hot or sweet ... and experience the full gamut of color and textures," says Ward.

While the style did afford more selection, it also forced me to selfishly defend my savory, char-grilled salmon from Sean's threatening fork.

After about a 35-minute wait, the meals were delivered with artful presentation.

The salmon was grilled without being dry and was served with a sautéed vegetable blend of zucchini, snow peas, red bell peppers, tomatoes and yellow squash. To my delight, the vegetables were tender without being mushy — a common malpractice of cooked vegetables. The sauce left little to be desired. The coconut-milk base created a creamy texture and tamed the fiery red curry, leaving the mouth warm without distracting from other flavors.

Ward says all vegetables are purchased locally from the Phoenix farmer's market, and meat are from Cherry Street Meats in Medford.

Sean's meal also exceeded the standard pad thai fare. While the dish possessed the usual sweet, salty and tangy flavors, it was set apart by the use of thin rice noodles as opposed to thick rice noodles, and was topped with a fresh lime garnish and crushed peanuts.

As Sean and I lingered over candlelight, I ordered an iced Thai coffee, which, to my disappointment, never arrived.

As we waited, several tantalizing dishes passed by on their way to neighboring tables, warranting a return visit — or two.

— Teresa Thomas

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