Café Asia both surprises and plays it safe

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerA visual treat: Café Asia’s tea-smoked salmon salad – with fish

Let’s say you work in the Civic Center. If you are daring, lunchtime reveals an embarrassment of low-end Vietnamese, Burmese and Thai. But for the nervous-minded “clutch my pearls” crowd, the funky neighborhood offerings might possess a bit too much, ah, character.

This review is for the second group.

Marching orders: Enter the Asian Art Museum, subject your bag to a frisk and nab a cute chopstick sticker at the front desk. Don’t look at any art, freeloader; that sticker is only for eating.

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Tucked near the escalators on the back end of the first floor, you’ll find Café Asia, a shiny, pan-Asian restaurant frequented by city employees and power brokers alike (I’ve heard of several Willie Brown sightings).

It’s not that Café Asia feels posh. Sure, the space is clean and well-appointed, with more feng shui and wood accents than typical institutional dining. But you still order food over a glass sneeze-shield, and food is shuttled around on cafeteria trays. It’s a museum cafe, not Gary Danko.

Everything is relative, though. Compared to Little Saigon’s grittier lunch spots, Café Asia might seem downright regal. And compared to other museum cafes, the food might seem downright revolutionary.

Certainly the pan-seared catfish fillet, tender and beautifully plated on a bed of seaweed, could upend your notions of cafeteria dining. Or the tea-smoked salmon salad, visually arresting with its green-brown interplay of shiitakes, edamame and soba and matcha noodles. Lovely to behold, even nicer to eat.

The gochujang pork shoulder was a tasty riff on the Korean rice bowl, with spicy swine strips and jasmine rice served under a watercress and bean sprout salad.

These artful items surprised and satisfied. My friend Alexis, a former museum curator, credits Café Asia as one of the top museum cafes she’s visited (only bested by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Berkeley Art Museum).

But the bar has been set low. Museum food is often like hospital or hockey game food; no one expects much. And despite its loftier ambitions, Café Asia sometimes played it safe for the masses.

Chef Melinda Quirino spent many years on the line at Hotel Nikko’s restaurant (pre-Anzu), catering to a wide cross-section of business travelers.

Some of the cooking at Café Asia reflected this hotel background, like the Asam-Ayam Indonesian chicken, doused in heavy, sweet gravy. Notes of tamarind and soy didn’t elevate this one past steam-tray banquet fare.

Spare ribs in black bean sauce, looking spry under a teepee of Chinese long beans, were flabby and bland.

Vegetable spring rolls oozed pure mush.

On the side of several entrees, mounds of unadorned jasmine rice and mixed vegetables had a monkish simplicity.

Viewed in one light, these sides channeled the plain beauty of a Japanese rock garden. In another light, they were boring.

This may be a case of Quirino playing to her audience. She notes that many of her clientele are older (get thee to a museum, youngsters!) and less daring. Like the office workers who’d rather not visit Bang San or Burmese Kitchen, it’s a crowd that isn’t big on surprise.

Next month, Quirino’s menu changes to complement a new exhibit at the museum; she’ll add items such as clay pot lamb stew and Yellow River orange duck. It could go either way.

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