The habitually pained expression on our waiter's face grew more acute when I ordered the Malaysian chicken. "I'm not telling you that you shouldn't order it," he said, shaking his head. "It's just that people either love or hate it. I don't want to feel responsible if I come back around and you didn't like it." With a warning that dire, I couldn't back down.
There are a few dishes at Bay City Grill in downtown San Leandro that may test the mettle of your average foodie, but on the whole the restaurant's "Pacific Rim Fusion" food stakes a course that even the most cautious eater will feel comfortable exploring. Chinese-born chef Norman Sun traveled all over the word to collect recipes for the sixteen-month-old restaurant. His food combines ingredients and cooking techniques from China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and even Louisiana. The same menu appears at lunch and dinner, with several dollars tacked on to the prices in the evening.
The cheery, casual restaurant looks like it should be serving pan-Latino food, not pan-Asian. Almost every surface, from the walls to the chairs, is painted red or gold or green or blue, and the food emerges on bright, chunky Fiestaware-style plates and Japanese ceramics. There's a decent-sized patio for the busy lunch crowd on sunny days, but at night the crowd doesn't grow large enough to spill outside.
The restaurant offers a nice selection of sakes, American wines, and Asian and American beers, along with a well-thought-out tea list and freshly blended smoothies. But while the wide-ranging, eclectic approach works well with beverages, with food it becomes a major fault.
Small restaurants fall into the trap of the slowly expanding menu all too easily. Chefs get bored with their repertoire and add new items, but customers come to the restaurant for certain dishes, and complain loudly if they disappear. Popular specials and regular substitutions get printed up too, and soon you've got more dishes -- and perishable ingredients -- than you can prepare with the appropriate care.
This is clearly what has happened at Bay City Grill. There are more entrées on the menu than tables in the restaurant, which is fine for Chinese restaurants that can produce an infinite variety of flavors with a limited number of ingredients and an extensive palette of sauces and seasonings. With more expensive, Californian bistro-style dishes, quality dissipates quickly.
The problem became apparent with the first course, and then continued. Sa-te prawns had been rubbed with golden turmeric and spices, but not enough to compensate for the overcooking that sucked the sweet juice out of the skewered shellfish. Toasted cubes of tofu lacked enough character to counterbalance the gritty, sweet, and overpowering grated-ginger vinaigrette in which chopped romaine hearts and cucumber slices had been dressed.
On the other hand, if Bay City Grill fries it, then it's probably good. Each meal began with a tasty plate of paper-thin purple and white chips made from shaved taro root. I'd have preferred that the fried portobello mushrooms could have been roasted before being battered to release their meaty succulence, but their light, frilly tempura coating was done just right. The chicken wings had been plunged into oil until the skin crackled and the meat underneath pulled off the bone easily.
However, one dip of those wings into the ramekin of mismatching strawberry vinaigrette alongside was never repeated. We felt the same way about the vinaigrette when it was drizzled across a pair of crisp breaded fillets of sole, again deep-fried to perfection. Sure, you could taste a hint of fresh strawberry blended into the pink emulsion, but why bother?
More than half the entrées, such as the sole, fit the Western bistro model -- meat, starch, side vegetable -- and some are stir-fried meals-in-one. On both visits almost all were served with mounds of coconut jasmine rice, delicately flavored and perfectly cooked, and salty, crunchy dry-fried string beans. Paper-thin flowers and leaves sliced from carrots jutted out of the rice.
The Malaysian chicken ended up being one of my favorite dishes. The earthy, briny flavor of the controversial ingredient that I was warned against -- shrimp paste -- played out underneath the sweet soy glaze that coated the chicken and mixed vegetables, keeping it from being cloying. A crisp, crunchy vegetable spring roll garnished the plate. Also successful were the tender grilled short ribs, sliced thin Korean-style and marinated in a Southeast Asian blend of lemongrass, ginger, and shallots.
But many of the other dishes aimed for excellence only to arrive at mediocrity. One or two of the slices of the slow-baked baby ox tongue had reached the appropriate texture, firm but yielding. A Portuguese root sauce -- potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, and garlic pureed with vastly reduced beef stock -- made this rich, close-grained meat taste like concentrated steak. But the rest of the tongue was unpleasantly tough. Our assay into vegetarian territory (there are several meat-free dishes on the menu), a mélange of vegetables and tofu, was coated in a brightly hued but pallid-tasting Chinese-style curry sauce. And a king salmon fillet was set on top of a pile of coconut rice and surrounded by a white sauce, animated only with a touch of lemon, for a bland-on-bland combination.
As if we needed more proof that focusing on quality instead of quantity pays off, the restaurant offers only a couple of well-executed desserts. Two scoops of red-bean ice cream were pleasantly grainy from the ground-up beans, and had a surprisingly distinctive flavor with overtones of watermelon. A sliver of chocolate mousse cake on a chocolate-crumb crust disappeared quickly.
Both waiters delivered amicable if slightly eccentric service. The worried waiter of my first visit didn't smile much, but he staged our first courses so everything fit on the tiny table, and he checked back regularly. He didn't seem excited so much as resigned when I told him that I actually liked my chicken. On my next visit, we overheard him tell a customer who was raving about the mint lemonade, "Well, I don't like lemons and I hate mint, so I've never tried it," before striding away. Our second waiter took a half-hour to pay attention to our orders, with repeated questions and misplaced plates, but once he got going, he hit his marks with a couple of quick-fired jokes.
A tighter, more focused menu would better serve customers and chefs alike. It's always best to offer only as many dishes as you can prepare to perfection. Seduce your regulars with periodically appearing favorites -- if they can't find the dish they love, they can't wait to return.