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Sushi bars in South Florida are almost interchangeable. Each offers a ton of selections, including a roster of inventive, multi-ingredient rolls with funny names. Each serves some other kind of Asian food (usually Thai) along with the Japanese stuff. And each carries some of the freshest fish around -- as it should, given the abundance of our local waters -- in bland surroundings featuring lots of bamboo and clean, feng shuiish lines.
At first glance not much differentiates Asian Grille & Sushi Bar from other sushi joints. The West Palm Beach eatery, located around the corner from Clematis Street on Narcissus Avenue, has a broad spectrum of sushi and sashimi combinations. Formerly just a Japanese restaurant, the place metamorphosed four months ago into a pan-Asian spot, advertising a lengthy Chinese menu and a few dishes from the southeastern part of the continent as well as raw fish. The décor, too, seems typical, with a tile floor, some bamboo-andrice paper wall hangings, and a couple of print-fabric banquettes.
But there is a difference. While most of our sushi restaurants are so reliably good as to make choosing among them tough (and writing about them even tougher -- ruby-red tuna, buttery salmon, blah, blah, blah), Asian Grille distinguishes itself by being terrifically awful. In a region where serving foul fish should be a crime, this sushi spot almost seems to revel in being a scofflaw.
One good way to test the sushi at a new spot is to order a couple of rolls for appetizers. If we had followed such a tactic, we would have saved ourselves plenty of time and money, because the rolls were sloppily constructed and about as rank as a shirt worn by a teenage boy to play soccer. In particular the volcano roll, smudged with a mountain of conch in neon orange mayonnaise, fell apart when we tried to pick it up; the tuna tataki roll, which was supposed to feature seared-edge tuna, instead gave us all-raw stuff that was decidedly off.
Unfortunately we'd already ordered the chirashi for a main course: The bowl of vinegared rice topped with decoratively cut fish was practically inedible. The tuna was pallid, the salmon stringy, and the other fish just plain unidentifiable. When one of my guests held up a chunk of something for the waitress to name, she said it was wahoo without even glancing at it. Even worse, our Asian server sounded like a Western caricature when she admonished, "You try, you like, OK?"
Indeed she kept up a running patter throughout the meal. When she delivered a teriyaki strip steak, she asked, "That good steak, eh?" And when she brought over the seafood wor bar(ordered off the Chinese menu) about 20 minutes after the rest of the entrées had arrived, she wanted to know, "Look good, yeah?"
I don't know if she was trying to convince us or herself, but the answer to each of her questions would be, "No, not really." The steak tasted as if it had been chemically tenderized: mushy on the outside and tough inside. Teriyaki sauce was served cold on the side and went unnoticed for several minutes, though it didn't improve matters once we found it. As for the seafood wor bar, it was more like seafood "worse for wear." The shrimp in this brightly colored stir-fry were disintegrating with age, and the rubbery scallops looked as if they had been stamped out of processed shark meat. A rock lobster tail crowned the dish, but it was no jewel, with zero flavor and a texture reminiscent of plastic to recommend it.
Asian Grille makes a nod toward its moniker by offering some four dishes that are neither Japanese nor Chinese. That didn't render them any more palatable, though. Pork satay was thin slices of pork coated with flour and sautéed in a salty brown sauce. We should have guessed the texture of the meat would have been sinewy from the nature of the chicken yakitori appetizer, which a member of my party admitted was "tough, dry, and tasteless but otherwise fine." Nothing could have prepared us for the curry shrimp, however. A dozen geriatric crustaceans stir-fried with onions and ladled over white rice, the curry was so offensive no one wanted to sit downwind from it.
Other fare was simply anemic. An appetizer sampler from the Japanese menu originally disappointed us with its tiny servings of dumplings, seaweed salad, and spring rolls. But after a bite or two, we were relieved we didn't have to polish off a few bites more in order to be polite. The dumplings (gyoza and shumai, both boiled) were soggy, the seaweed bland, and the spring rolls -- well, let the one remaining spring roll that we allowed to congeal on the plate do the talking.
Asian Grille does have one or two saving graces. Located near the end of Clematis Street, the outdoor tables permit good people-watching, if you don't mind the oilcloth tablecloths with plastic menus Scotch-taped to them. These tables are especially valuable on "walking nights," when the streets around the area are closed to cars, booths offer flea market goods, and bands and drum circles give concerts. Of course you have to order something in order to stake a place -- minimize your suffering by sampling an iceberg lettuce salad with gingery dressing. Or if you insist on having a full meal, take the tuna with raspberry sauce. It probably won't come rare even if you order it that way (at least ours didn't) but it was the best item out of a bad bunch.
On second thought, passersby could be stark naked and wearing fetish collars, and I still wouldn't go back to Asian Grille & Sushi Bar. The place stinks from the fish up, and it would take monumental effort to raise the bar to acceptable, let alone good.