Sunday, June 8, 2008

Retro Review: Bonsai Bistro

Bonsai Bistro
101 E. Sherman Ave
Coeur d'Alene

(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 t
hree 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


cdafoodie said...

Just curious why one of the top Japanese and sushi restaurant "Syringa" isn't on this site?

Anonymous said...

Next time, be sure to get your facts straight before you write about a restaurant. The executive chef was recruited from portland(chosen from more than 200 prospects from across the country). No small-town boy there (did I mention he's from san fran and worked all over the country, including vegas?). Hmmm ... and menu portions? Not only are there too many menu items to count, the portions are huge! It must take A LOT to satisfy you. Yes, some of the dishes at Bonsai are on the higher end, but the average entree can easily feed two people (at least that's been my experience, and I'm a BIG eater).

Bonsai has such a vast Asian menu, no other restaurant in the area can be compared to it. And their fresh fish and sushi ... my gosh ... are untouchable! All other sushi joints in the area envy them.

So ... maybe your one experience there wasn't up to par, but trust me, I go there religiously and have been truly satisfied each and every time.

Panda said...

I used to think it was a good place to eat, and disagreed with this article until my most recent visit. My husband ordered a Patron Silver Magarita and the waitress brought him a platinum then charging us $75.00 for the drink. Even after we asked them about it they refused to change the charge and I was embarassed as the bartender yelled obnoxiously over the dinner crowd about the situation. Loud enough for him to be heard from the bar all the way to our table on the upper level near the far window. Coming to find out he was the manager as well I wasn't likely to want to discuss it with someone who sounded like a drunk making idiot of himself. The food was basically an exact copy of PF Changs and it was a shorter drive than Spokane, however, after this experience the longer drive sounds lovely.

Anonymous said...

We had lunch here a couple of years ago. Actually that would be two visits in one - the first and last time we ate at the Bonsai. The food was low grade to mediocre, the service was awful and it was all overpriced, of course. We had to ask for hot tea about 5 times, it kept arriving lukewarm. Our waitress was on the nasty side, evidently having a bad day.

Anonymous said...

The first and last time I ate at Bonsai Bistro the beef was like chewing shoe leather. Very tough.

Anonymous said...

Umm.. how, as an apparent wanna-be "food critic," do you go to a restaurant such as Bonsai and not order the sushi, then proceed to give your opinion on how the chicken doesn't compare to Seattle? Its like going to a mexican restaurant, an whining that their grilled cheese wasn't as good as some ritsy version you had elsewhere. Pathetic. If you like Seattle's food better, move there.


We ate at Bonsai shortly after it opened. We always give a restaurant a 6-month window of time to work out the kinks. The food was good, not outstanding. It was irritating to spend so much at a Chinese/Asian restaurant and not have leftovers to take home. I wasn't impressed with the hokey 'magic sauce'process at the table. As I said we went there years ago and feel absolutely no need to go back. It was an expensive and forgettable meal.

Anonymous said...

"Instantly forgettable waitress"? You better go in the daytime and ask to sit in Jennifer's area, she is the most sexy, seductive female in N Idaho,

And I eat like a horse, the portions were very satisfying,

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous that posted on November 30th, 2010:

Your comment makes no sense, and is IMO the obvious reply of either a fanboy of the place or maybe an employee. You seem to think that his review is invalid because 1) He didn't order the sushi and 2) He compared it to a place in Seattle. What pure drivel. Your comment almost implies that one SHOULD expect anything other then the sushi at Bonsai Bistro to be subpar then, and that previous experiences if they involve restaurants outside of Kootenai County, Id. are invalid.

What the blog author was OBVIOUSLY trying to point out is that he felt the meal he did order was overpriced for what he got, and simply used an example of a Seattle restaurant as an example. To read more into it is absurd. I do also notice one other thing, other then one other positive review, the reviews for this place are negative. Now, does that mean everyone else is a "wanna be food critic"? Sorry, but I think I'll look at the majority opinion before I believe an angry fanboy or employee.