The cuisines of Asia are now ubiquitous across America — choose among Chinese, Laotian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants, each sticking to its traditional cuisines.
But in Cloverdale, something new has been happening for the past six years. At Tian Yuen, the regular menu includes Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese dishes, and there's also a sushi bar with a full-time sushi chef at work preparing nigiri and maki sushi, hand rolls, and even Hawaiian poke salad.
It's a pan-Asian kitchen. Who says you can't have a California roll with your Tom Yum Gai? Not Mei Jung Shih, the Taiwanese chef who has brought all these cuisines delightfully together.
Tian Yuen is a bright, clean restaurant in a relatively new building on the west side of South Cloverdale Boulevard, not far from the center of town. French doors and floor-to-ceiling glass windows let in south light filtered through a gorgeous rosebush. Windows are hung with swags of drapery. Eleven tables are simply set with tablecloths covered with glass, cloth napkins, chopsticks, a fork and a dispenser of soy sauce.
The wine list includes a smattering of varietals, mostly from local producers Pedroncelli and Dutcher Crossing, but there are also teas and soft drinks, plus a range of Japanese and Chinese beer, the latter always a good choice with Asian food. Service is smart and fast, and is as likely as not to include Mei, as she not only cooks but makes sure the room is running smoothly. The sushi chef stays busy under a typical short, rustic Japanese roof over his station.
Tian Yuen has separate menus for the Japanese items and the rest of the Asian dishes. Both state, in bold letters, "No M.S.G." And there are special deals available, such as a 20 percent discount for seniors on Monday nights. To check for deals, visit the website and click the tab marked "Offers."
Dinner started with the sushi menu's <b>Japanese-style Cucumber Salad</b> ($6.95, 2 stars), a sweet and tangy mix of translucent green seaweed, sliced cucumbers and commercial crabmeat of no discernible flavor but with a nice spicy kick.
Nigiri sushi comes as two pieces. <b>Shiromaguro</b> ($4.50, 3 stars) featured fresh, clean-tasting albacore topped with fish roe and set on white sushi rice.
It's anyone's guess why the <b>New York Roll</b> ($5.50, 3 stars) — two pieces of maki sushi — is so named, but in the center are pieces of avocado and shrimp. They are wrapped in a piece of black nori seaweed that is then wrapped in sushi rice and rolled in sesame seeds. The rolls taste as fresh as a spring sunbeam with a nice little tang given by a splash of citrus.
Now we jump to the regular Tian Yuen menu and the <b>Vietnamese Spring Rolls</b> ($3.95, 2 stars), their crunchy, deep-fried wontons filled with a tired mix of cabbage, carrot, onion, glassy rice noodles and pork. A sweet and sour sauce helped ease the disappointment with the filling, but my mood changed for the better with the arrival of the <b>Chicken Red Curry</b> ($10.95, 4 stars).
Chef Mei makes her own red curry paste for this outstanding dish. I ordered chicken, which came as tender thin slices, but you can order this curry with pork, beef or tofu, spiced to the degree of heat that you're comfortable with. It was as good an Asian curry as I've ever encountered. The curry paste had a deep, rich flavor that was entrancing. Zucchini, carrots and cilantro added to the fun. It comes with white rice on the side.