Riding the Pacific Wave 

Asian fusion gets a tasty treatment in downtown St. Pete.

Restaurants, especially places that have been around for a few years, run the risk of becoming a bit too familiar to diners. Décor becomes dated, and food, if it doesn't change with the times, can transition from comforting to tired. Right now, Pacific Wave is on that cusp, wavering between accessible and complacent. On a lazy Monday night, our server tells us with a relieved, "it's about time" attitude that owner Dan Smith -- who bought the place a little over a year ago -- is planning an overhaul of the atmosphere and menu. Great.

But hold on. Before Pacific Wave undergoes a transformation, it's worth a second look by Bay area diners. This is one of those rare restaurants that fills its particular pigeonhole with aplomb, putting consistent and competent food on the table without fuss or strife. It's just interesting enough to please fine-dining regulars and accessible enough for infrequent diners stretching their means and tastes for a high-end experience.

That's not to say it shouldn't change, however. With talent like this in the kitchen and on the floor, it has potential to be more than just a great standby.

Pacific Wave's cuisine is a distinct throwback to the '80s, the heyday of the Asian fusion craze. This blend of Pacific Rim dishes blended with classic Western techniques and sauces was exciting for a while, then a bit trite, and is now finally earning its place among the accepted genres of the fine-dining bourgeoisie.

The current menu reads like a primer to that once-inventive era -- duck confit with Chinese five-spice powder, lobster spring rolls with lobster bisque. Although it's not going to cause oohs and aahs among food aficionados, this cuisine still gets the salivary glands running. It may not always be passionate, but it's safe, secure and satisfying. And at Pacific Wave, it's also consistently tasty.

On the pu pu platter ($33), only egg roll shells stuffed with bland mushrooms miss the mark, leaving four other bites that are ably executed and occasionally surprising. Hunks of tender lobster are stuffed into tiny tubes of rice paper, deep-fried and balanced atop a puddle of decadent lobster bisque. Dumplings are elegant little pockets of ground chicken and mushrooms, with another restrained and rich sauce based on sesame and stock. Spring rolls are stuffed with noodles, cilantro, mint and mushrooms -- refreshing, if a bit bland.

Ribs are the biggest surprise. Instead of the sticky-sweet candied pig I've come to expect from many Asian restaurants, the meaty bones are simply braised until the meat falls off at a touch, with little more than a blast of vinegar to accent the succulent pork. They're easily the best ribs you'll have in St. Pete outside of a barbecue shop.

The most definitive part of the meal comes on a simple plate of beef tataki ($12). Slender slices of seared tenderloin are fanned on a sauce of sesame oil and soy. The beef is flavorful and melts in the mouth, the marinade and sauce adding just enough richness and salt to accent the flavor of the steak, with a typical salad on the side dressed with more soy and sesame. It's uncomplicated, flavorful, well cooked and classic.

When it comes to the entrées, I find myself wishing for more assertive Asian flavors to give the dishes some oomph, but that subdued competence still manages to push out some fine food. Tiger shrimp ($24) are ideally cooked, plump and tender and dripping with a soupy sauce of simple and salty reduced stock. That same sauce leaves the accompanying pad thai noodles a bit wanting, but we still finish the lot of them. Roast chicken breast ($19.50) is topped by boursin and greens, the herbed cheese and a mildly sweet glaze of reduced soy adding a necessary bit of richness to the nearly dry meat.

Pacific Wave's take on confit ($26) manages to inject a welcome burst of power to the meal. On one side of the plate is sliced breast meat, exceptionally tender and favored with another of those back-seat sauces that accents and seasons without taking control. On the other side is a confit duck leg with a breath of excitement. It's been seared after its slow braise in fat, with a good hit of Chinese five-spice powder on the outside to give it a heady crust of clove, cinnamon and anise. More dishes like the confit might make Pacific Wave a restaurant that appeals to people looking for something other than updated comfort food.

Just to punctuate the competence of Pacific Wave's kitchen, desserts are a big hit. There's chocolate lava cake and crème brûlée, of course, but also three homemade ice creams and a pineapple egg roll ($8). I didn't expect much out of that, but the combination of sweet fried shell, rich and savory coconut and bits of pineapple cooked into a syrupy mash is astounding. Better still is Kona coffee ice cream ($6), silky smooth and stained brown with a profusion of actual grounds worked through the cream.

Although I may complain a little about some of the dishes being staid or too subdued, that's really a note of endearment for the food at Pacific Wave. A meal here is consistently good, from soup to nuts, which is rare in the Bay area restaurant scene. With such obvious talent in the kitchen, I want a little more reach.

In the meantime, though, before they make any changes that might alter the balanced dynamic that Pacific Wave has achieved, I have to applaud them. Anyone heading out for a nice meal, whether avowed foodie or dining neophyte, is likely to be deeply satisfied with their experience at Pacific Wave.

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