Remember when an "Asian restaurant" simply was a Chinese restaurant? Now we have the whole continent to choose from: Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese.
The menu is that varied at the new Papaya in the Hampton Inn in the heart of clubland on Chippewa Street. And it's a handsome place, too. (Love the stunning chopsticks and the even more stunning chopstick rests.) This is a big restaurant, done in subtle colors with tiered tables. There's a glass-enclosed kitchen in one corner, tucked under the stairs.
The requisite list of martinis is available, needless to say, but so is a fairly decent wine list with at least one of each popular varietal available by the glass. Standard dishes are listed on the menu, but diners will note plenty of more contemporary approaches as well. Wonton Soup? Sure, but also Malaysian Chicken Squash Soup in a curried coconut broth.
Spring Rolls and Summer Rolls? Yes, indeed, but also an appetizer called Pepper Tuna ($9), accompanied by spicy sesame seaweed salad.
What do you order when faced with such a wide choice? For appetizers, I admit we followed the conventional path. Chicken Pot Stickers ($6 for five or six) were certainly tasty, though they could have done with a little more searing.
And Crabcakes ($9.50), which I confess I went for because the menu told me that the dish was going to be served with kimchee aioli. Imagine, living long enough to experience a fusion like that, I thought to myself. (Kimchee being a pungent vegetable relish common to Korean cuisine and aioli a kind of garlic mayonnaise common in Provencal cooking). But it was not to be.
No aioli on the plate, of any variety. But plenty of mango relish and papaya salad, so all was not lost.
Entrees are also based on well-known standards with Asia tweaks. Grilled Salmon with a spicy bamboo basil sauce and stir fried mixed vegetables ($16); Grilled Prawns with spicy cashew eggplant sauce; Pineapple Curry Pork Chop ($17, with spicy green beans).
But there's also Sake and Red Miso-Glazed Fish ($20), which turned out to be monk fish -- not a favorite, so I gave it a miss. Ending up with Chicken Laksa ($16) instead -- a kind of soup/stew with a perky coconut sauce and puffy naan Indian bread. An exceptionally clever move on my part, by the way. As was the Companion's Tamarind Duck ($16), the oh-so-rare breast topped with the sour fruit sauce that was a perfect foil for the rich fowl.
On the next visit perhaps we'll try the Penang Clay Pot with a curried sauce and basil or Sizzling Beef. It's early days for this restaurant, under the ownership of the folks who have already given us the fine Saigon Bangkok and the Saigon Cafe. But it shows such promise that it's already an exciting addition to the downtown restaurant scene.
PAPAYA *** 1/2 *
WHERE: 118 W. Chippewa St. (856-2444). Stunning new restaurant with a large, imaginative selection of Asian food. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Tamarind Duck
NEEDS WORK: Food is of good quality.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers from $5; entrees from around $16.
SERVICE: Very good
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday. Dinner until 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; until 10 Sunday.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Many seafood and vegetarian options
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
PARKING: On the street
KID APPEAL: An adult restaurant
* Indicates that restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.