101 E. Sherman Ave
(You may have noticed there was no new Get Out column yesterday. I actually got the week off due to the fact that the Handle Extra wasn't published in order to run the Spokesman-Review's annual High School Graduates section. So I decided to dig deep into the archives and re-run a classic review I wrote over three years ago for the old making Flippy Floppy blog right after Bonsai Bistro first opened. I wasn't very impressed. Since becoming published, I've been avoiding reviewing Hagadone Corp. establishments for several reasons but back then I sure wasn't afraid to let 'em have it...)
Not to be overly crass, but to me the most amazing thing about the new Bonsai Bistro restaurant was how they got rid rid of that assy smell. Anyone who ever worked at this former bank/bomb shelter during its incarnation as Dakotah Direct (which I had the misfortune of doing for three years) will know what I mean. For years, the interior of this building was filled with an odor that can only be described as: grade A ass. This was an unfortunate side effect of a poor ventilation system in a call center filled with an endless succession of patricularly sweaty and expressive asses. It was an odor that lingered here for a long time, and something that everyone assumed was here to stay.
Yet somehow, through the miracle of Hagadone, that assy smell is gone. Long before Dakotah Direct went the way of the mastodon, Duane Hagadone had plans for this ugly little building. Or, to be more accurate, it was his wife Lola (who, by the way, I adore) that had the brainstorm of turning it into a "Pan-Asian" restaurant, inspired by some place she had seen while skipping around the globe on thier yacht, the Lady Lola. Mrs. H pulled a few chefs and some management from her hubby's other restaurants and put together a team to realize her "concept." After a month or two of letting the place air out, it opened with the usual outrageous amount of hype that is heaped on anything Hagadone.
People came in droves to see what they had done to the place, which I will admit, was rather impressive. The decor is very California, with an array of boring but tasteful beiges and browns with typical faux-asian (bamboo) highlights. The impressive part to me is the little koi pond that was installed right into the floor, which adds an aura of tranquility to the place. Although, it might be a bit uncomfortable to enjoy your sushi with an innocent koi giving you googly-eyes.
After less-than-delightful experiences at other Hagadone places (poor service, overpriced, small portions), I was actually planning on avoiding the Bonsai Bistro forever, but my father suggested the place for my birthday lunch and I thought "If he's paying why not?" After the initial shock and amazement that the assy smell was gone, I settled into the menu. Ouch! This was no cheap and easy Chinese joint, that's for sure. The menu was filled with items whose descriptions made them sound delicious, but that also seemed a little bit "forced". In other words, the menu was irritatingly pretentious as if it were written exclusivly to impress tourists with its "big city gourmet" selections.
Even more stunningly impressive was the fact they had the nerve to charge these kinds of prices. It takes a lot of cajones to charge six dollars for a little bowl of edamame (steamed soybeans), or almost seven dollars for a damn egg roll. Ah, but this is "gourmet", of course. We gladly pay extra for that fake Hagadone "ambience." I was kind of embarrassed that my dad was going to have to pay such a huge bill, so I ordered "cheap" (General Tso's chicken for around $14.95).
Our perfectly adequate but instantly forgettable waitress showed up and began fiddling around with some sauces on our table, creating a bowl of what she referred to as the "house sauce" which, I think was just soy sauce with some hot mustard and cocktail sauce mixed in. The way she went about this task was too cutesy, as if she were letting us in on a little secret, and this was our exclusive little wonder sauce. Well, the effect was ruined when I saw her making the same sauce for the next table. Our secret super sauce remained untouched by both myself and my dad for the entire meal.
The waitress took our order and brought us our drinks. For some reason, everytime I order a regular Pepsi in a Hagadone place they bring me a diet instead. "Oh, I always do that!" she said as she quickly did a switcheroo. I'm beginning to think this is part of thier act, that they are trained to do this. The food arrived. General Tso's chicken is not something I normally order at a Chinese place, but I always get it when I'm in Seattle from the fast food Chinese joint on Broadway (Magic Dragon, I think). There, the Gerenal Tso's is a dark, spicy affair with red peppers and covered in sesame seeds, a heaping order for six bucks. Delicious. Here, at the Bonsai Bistro, the General Tso's chicken is eight and half boring pieces of lightly tempura'd chicken cooked only to the point of barely done-ness and covered in a bland glaze that tastes vaguely orangey. The menu had an exclamation point next to the dish, indicating that there would some kick to it. However, there were no exclamation points in the actual food, only question marks. Did they run out of glaze? Is there a fryer oil shortage? Is the chef high on Valium? How can they charge 15 bucks for this?
Even after finishing the few bites of plain white rice that was served with the chicken, I was still hungry. Yet again I had fallen victim to the Hagadone curse: lots of hype for nothing, and small portions that are jaw-droppingly overpriced. To be fair, I did not get a chance to sample thier sushi, which I've heard is great and worth the price (my father would have gotten queasy at the sight of raw fish - he's a meat and potoatoes kind of guy.) Actually, I was surprised when my dad announced that his stir-fry was delicious and filling and to his credit, he never complained once about the bill. I reminded him that our poor waitress was being paid $3.00/hr or so by old Mr. H, and so he tipped her 10 bucks, our good deed for the day.
Overall, the most impressive aspect of this place is the amazing ass-free transformation of the interior. As for the food and value, I was not overly impressed. However, like the other Hagadone restaurants, the place will likely thrive on unknowing tourists who are suckered in by the hype, and on transplanted Californians, homesick for an overpriced taste of pretentiousness. Rating: Ambience 8/10 Food 3/10