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CAFE ASIA

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Pan-Asian restaurants continue to sprout up in Pittsburgh. This spring brings us Café Asia, in the heart of Squirrel Hill. It's just a nook of a restaurant, but attractively decorated in a simple style -- black-framed walls are covered in a finely woven mat of reeds set off by oversized ethnic artwork. The front is all glass -- and the coming warm weather will allow some sidewalk dining. A lamp shielded by a shade of woven palm fronds hangs above each table. At the hostess station, a single pink-and-white orchid fairly glows.

The appetizer menu offers the ever-popular spring rolls and satays. Our server talked my companion into the fried tofu by declaring that the accompanying dipping broth was "addictive." This dish, agedashi tofu, did have an unusual dip -- slightly warmed tempura sauce seasoned with bonito fish flakes, green onion and fresh ginger.

I ordered bahn tap, a Vietnamese appetizer. Small strips of lemongrass-marinated beef had been char-grilled and were served atop mildly shrimp-flavored rice crackers -- crisp and puffy, like crunchy air -- with ground peanuts and green onions. These crackers came with a sweet vinegar "dipping" sauce, but the haphazard construction of the loose meat and peanuts required the careful spooning of sauce onto the cracker.

Café Asia offers several meal-sized salads and soups from the Thai tom yum to a Japanese udon and three Vietnamese big soups, including a vegetarian pho. The dinner entrees likewise span Asia. Two dishes tempt just for their great names -- the "Crying Tiger" spicy beef salad and "Jumping Squid."

Ultimately, we each ordered a fish entrée. My companion had the salmon shoo shee pla. A salmon filet had been cooked in a dark spicy panang curry sauce with sliced bell peppers. Additionally, a small portion of sweet coconut sauce had been ladled onto the plate. It was quite a heady dish -- salmon, of course, has a strong flavor of its own; the curry, ordered extra hot, was fiery; and the coconut sauce was rich and sweet.

His fish was served on banana leaves, but mine had been cooked in them. A filet of whitefish had been steamed while wrapped up with shredded ginger, napa cabbage, mushrooms, light soy sauce, ground black pepper and lime juice. After cooking, the fish had been garnished with chopped cilantro.

This fish leapt ahead in my personal poll for favorite fish preparation. The white meat was flaky, the mushrooms still firm. The balance of flavors was superb -- a little bite from the pepper, the tang of the lime juice, the aromatic essence of the ginger. Best of all, despite the wonderful strong flavors added, the mild sweet taste of the fish still shone through. With a side of steamed rice, this was great light meal -- light on the stomach, and prepared in a healthy manner.

But duty called, and the dessert menu had to be studied. My companion debated the fried ice cream or the fried banana with ice cream, and chose the banana on the dubious claim that the inclusion of fruit gave it at least the illusion of healthfulness. A batter-dipped, deep-fried banana may not be acme of healthful eating, but crunchy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside, it's sure yummy -- especially when served with a scoop of coconut ice cream.

I tried something new. Che be mau was described as "supreme three colors of beans," coconut milk and crushed ice. I received a milkshake glass, long spoon and a straw. At the bottom of the glass sat Thai custard and a mushy substance that looked like one color of bean. Floating throughout the glass were serrated strips of green jelly, like Gummi fruit candies. It's possible what I got was parts of another dessert, che Thai, listed adjacent on the menu, which offered jackfruit and jelly with coconut milk and ice.

In any case, I enjoyed it. Digging deep into the glass, I could spoon bits of the reddish starch and the sweet coconut-y custard. The more I poked and dug with the spoon, the more mixed up the dessert became. Here, then, was the time to bring on the straw, as the dessert had mutated into a milkshake of sorts.

The night we dined, Café Asia was manned by an enthusiastic staff that seemed a bit overwhelmed by the line of waiting customers and by some diners' requests. I had to ask for condiments, and even after querying the server, my dessert remained a mystery. Time should smooth out these rough spots, and hopefully, the "supreme three colors of beans" will settle in the 'Burgh comfortably. * * *

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