I could smell the dish as my server approached. It was an unmistakable scent that excited me because I knew what was coming.
But it wasn't a pleasant scent. As a matter of fact, it was one many of us grew to despise as children; one that would make us groan when we caught a whiff of it after our moms called us in from outside for dinner.
The wok-charred cauliflower at Nawa Asian Fusion on The Landing was a far cry from the cauliflower our mothers would leave boiling on the stove back in the day. And the next time I smell cauliflower cooking, I will not groan. I will think of this masterful dish.
The florets were roasted and joined by just green bell peppers and onions in a thin soy-based sauce along with chicken, which was my choice of protein. Though minimal in ingredients, it was masterful in flavor as the cauliflower – cooked perfectly so it still had a little snap but very tender – starred.
It was this kind of unique approach to Asian fare that separates Nawa from other area fusion places that do a lot of cuisines OK, but none of them great. There was greatness to be found here.
The second great item I had came not from the Far East but rather India. And it is a dish that will be on my table every time I visit Nawa.
The roti bread came with two sauces; a sweet vinegar-based with diced cucumber and onions and a curry. Both were exemplary, and the bread was actually better than what I have had at the city's Indian restaurants. It was crispy and kind of flaky but also soft and chewy. The curry sauce was my favorite as its spice built with each bite.
As you dunk away in that curry sauce, you might need a cooling cocktail and that was something Nawa could definitely provide. The bar offerings are as unique and enticing as the food. The Woku – shochu (a clear Japanese liquor), lemon and fennel honey – was the perfect summery foil to the spicy food I enjoyed there.
The spice was just right on my green curry shrimp, which is a nightly feature. Eight succulent jumbo shrimp, red and green peppers and long beans were coated in the signature sauce. There was some steamed broccoli and carrots on the side and a big sprig of fresh, raw Thai basil on top that added a floral note that really lifted the dish.
The lack of spice in my Gyoza Panang appetizer disappointed a bit, but it was still enjoyable. Printed in red on the menu to denote its spiciness, these little steamed dumplings of chicken, cabbage, kaffir lime and red peppers were plated on a puddle of panang red curry sauce that sure looked the part.
They had a wonderful texture and the filling could not have been better, but the sauce, which was a little creamy, hit me with just a tickle of heat. They were good dumplings, but would have been great had they been spicier.
I also had to try the Chinese buns from the appetizer section because they are one of my favorite dim sum choices. Nawa offered duck, pork belly and soft-shell crab buns, and the pork and crab were beautifully presented with little cocktail umbrellas stuck in each one, and colorful carrot and green onion shards and cucumber slices for good measure.
The crab was just OK. My two Chinese steamed buns had half a crab on each that was nicely lightly fried and a smear of a sweet pasty sauce that was tasty, but was one I could not identify or find a trace of on the menu description. My server also struggled to explain to me what it was.
The pork buns were better. The belly was rendered nicely so it had a crispy layer of fat on one edge, and the mystery sauce was even better here as it gave the pork a sweet, sort of barbecue essence.
Even more beautiful than the buns was the Nawa Chicken Salad, which was a far less adventurous choice but, as a result, could be a lunchtime staple.
Cubes of freshly grilled – and still warm – chicken breast were joined by fried tofu that looked much like the chicken, sweet ripe cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and bean sprouts and a nice mix of greens in a cute cabbage leaf “bowl,” with sliced egg on the plate encircling it all. Its dressing was a sweet peanut sauce that was good enough to put on about anything.
The ramen noodle soup will definitely not be a staple for me. I was excited to see how Nawa did this super trendy dish. It had just four small slices of roasted pork belly, two large slices of fish cake (think imitation crab here), a lightly preserved boiled egg, sprouts and baby bok choy.
The pork belly – usually the highlight ingredient – was nothing like what I had on the buns. It was flaccid and rubbery instead of crispy and properly rendered. The ramen's broth was timid in flavor and depth, and the cabbage was in whole bulb form that made it look pretty but also made it awkward to eat.
The Salmon Japanese also fell flat. It was, like everything, gorgeously presented sitting high atop sautéed bok choy with strands of cooked seaweed, red pepper slices and sesame seeds on top of the sauced fish with asparagus spears and a little salad on the side.
The fish was nicely cooked and its sweet soy-based glaze was fine, but it was just boring. It was the kind of dish I would find at any Japanese restaurant or even an American steakhouse.
I did not expect to find a sensational dessert at an Asian fusion restaurant and expected the vanilla coconut puree cheesecake to be a premade restaurant-service item instead of homemade. I was wrong on both accounts.
Nawa's cheesecakes are made locally and the coconut version was worth going back for on its own. It was light and airy but packed with coconut flavor. Its graham cracker crust was quite thin, which was a nice touch because it simply did its job of holding the luscious coconut cheese base without getting in the way. It was topped with thin almond slices and drizzled with a little too much chocolate sauce, but was otherwise flawless.
The service was also pretty flawless as several people were keeping tabs on my tables. And as pretty as the dishes at Nawa were, its atmosphere in an old furniture store on The Landing was even more impressive. And it, too, centered on fusion.
The old brick of the building is exposed, and there is a nifty sort of bank-vault style door in one room that adds to its retro feel. But there are modern touches throughout including an intricate chandelier and a simply dazzling back-lit bar.
Restaurant: Nawa Asian Fusion
Address: 1267 W. Columbia St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Crab buns ($10), pork belly bun ($9), roti ($9), gyoza ($9), chicken salad ($14), ramen ($14), cauliflower ($14), Salmon Japanese ($24), cheesecake ($8),
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 max.), service: ★ (1 max.)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five