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Heavenly Bodies

Joe Rocco

"You're sure you're very hungry?" our waitress says. "Because the Lobster Monster is really big."

She eyes us with skepticism. Or it's a look that mingles skepticism ("they'll never eat all the food they've ordered") with politely concealed disgust ("these horrible people might eat all the food they've ordered"). Our waitress is beautiful. She weighs 83 pounds. She would never in a million years consider pigging out like this. Ugh, Americans!

But in heaven, don't we get to scarf down endlessly replicating plates of spring rolls and shumai and never get fat — indeed, never even get full? Because somehow, despite all the sins we've racked up over the years, tonight we've landed in Paradise. Around us, the world is an undulant, watery blue. We're perched on clouds of white pleather, cool trance music emanating from all directions. Stars in the form of elongated mod lamps sparkle overhead. In the distance, our very own personal sushi chef, in graceful slow-mo, is preparing us a kobe roll appetizer ($11.95) of lightly seared tuna — crunchy on the outside, melting pink within — squiggled with ethereally green wasabi sauce and dotted with solar-fire-colored tobiko. In a little while, another beautiful and slender waitress brings us a plate the exact hue of shallow seawater mixed with pure oxygen; when she puts down this divine edible, it seems to float above our table. Ah, the unbearable lightness of being...

We have found ourselves at Fah Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar. When we'd arrived, the candles on the empty outdoor tables were gusting in a cold wind; inside, the sky-colored room with its creamy banquettes was nearly empty, but it's late on a drizzly Monday night. People who love Asian fusion and sushi have already sussed out Fah, which means "blue sky," very welcome after three days of rain. It may be hunkered down inside a Publix plaza off Federal Highway in the tedious never-never land between Delray and Boca, but this place is no secret. The people who brought us Lemon Grass Asian Bistro in Delray and Sushi Thai in Boca — the other two best Asian restaurants in Palm Beach County — opened Fah about four months ago. This third seals the deal: Here's a trio of siblings as glamorous and smart as the Kennedys or the Brontë sisters. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd say I'm absolutely smitten with the youngest.

At Lemon Grass on Atlantic Avenue, you'll recall, the chefs play around with Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, even Hawaiian flavors. I ate a scrumptious Vietnamese grilled pork dish over steamed rice noodles with nuac-nam sauce there a couple of weeks ago and also a dreamy piece of sea bass steamed with tamarind that melted in my mouth and simultaneously melted my heart. At Fah, they've extended their selection of sushi and rolls. The rest of the menu is divided into appetizers; Asian salads like shrimp-papaya or crispy duck; and Thai-inspired soups and meal-sized bowls of beef noodle pho, duck noodle, and udon. A good selection of mixed noodles, curries, fried rice, and wok-tossed meats and vegetables rounds out a dozen special entrées. Some of these are carried over from Lemon Grass, and some, like Babe on the Stick and Naughty Shrimp, are new.

Proprietors Tammy Grayson and company have achieved an admirable level of brilliance and market savvy; they've slid into a South Florida niche like tempura-battered shrimp into hot oil. They're not selling the authentic taste of Bangkok or Tokyo; far from it. They know South Floridians generally like their sushi rolls cooked, fatty, inside out, and with cute, libidinous names like "Sex on the Moon," "Y2K roll," "American Dream," and "First Love roll." They know that we want them to look spectacularly pretty and, ideally, to fill up an entire plate. Thus, the Lobster Monster ($19.95, also at Lemon Grass) is a beast — cooked lobster chunks tossed in three sauces — eel, mayo, and a drizzle of something spicy — then stuffed back into the tail shell and surrounded by rolls filled with tempura lobster, cucumber, asparagus, and masago. It's decadent. It's mouth-filling and heady, full of overlapping creamy textures offset by the right amount of crunch.

The lobster dish, which ought to have comfortably fed the three of us, was in fact only one of nine — count 'em — dishes we'd ordered. Hence, our waitress' appalled look. By the time we'd slain the monster, we'd already put away that fantastic kobe tuna appetizer and a delightful dish of warm pork- and chicken-stuffed Thai steamed dumplings ($6.95), little tender packages of minced, peppery meat to dip in a pale orange duck sauce. Now we're working on giant-sized tempura calamari rings ($6.95), with a crust cloud-light and greaseless, steamy squid mildly salty, still tasting of the ocean.

Here we pause, laden chopsticks hanging in midair, to contemplate the question: What is it about these Tammy Grayson productions that make them incomparably better than other sushi and Thai joints? I think I'm starting to get my head and mouth around a plausible answer. They're selling upscale atmosphere, artful presentation, and very fresh ingredients at middlebrow prices. Entrées at Fah start at $14.95 and top out at $22.95; as noted, portions are generous. Specialty rolls range from $5.95 to no higher than $12.95 for the Black Dragon, a sumptuous affair of crab salad, shrimp tempura, and asparagus topped with eel and avocado (the price exception is the Lobster Monster, as noted). Every dish served at Fah is at least as pretty, as imaginatively executed, as anything you'd find at the hoity Echo in Palm Beach or the even hoitier fusion hot spots in Sobe, like China Grill. The details — from the color scheme of the walls to the artful arrangement of the food on those gorgeous, ethereal plates — is masterly. Somebody really cares.

And so you realize how many restaurants you're obliged to visit before you stumble into one where the owners, managers, and staff are all ferociously interested in the small and large gestures that go into creating an experience. How many restaurants get it half right and then decide not to sweat the small stuff? At Fah, and usually at Lemon Grass, magic resides in the details, like a genie in a stoppered bottle. But Lemon Grass is a zoo, plunked down on the hottest block in Delray Beach, a yawning space with a different clientele of drop-ins and tourists — and frenetic pacing. At Fah, time slips silently through the hourglass while you marvel at the sheen on a wok-tossed shrimp or bicker mildly over who gets the last curry puff. If you'd rather pay attention to your food and your dinner partners than to the witticisms and fashion statements at the next table, Fah's your scene.

Our chopsticks resume their arc. A plate of Dynamite Shellfish ($8.95) is a luscious concoction of mahi, squid, and crab baked in cream, scattered with masago, and served over sushi rice. Sex on the Moon roll ($12.95) appears to resemble the scarred surface of a lunar terrain — hills of shrimp, eel, asparagus, avocado, and masago wrapped with rice, topped with tuna, then moon-dusted with tempura flakes. An old favorite from Lemon Grass, the Extremely Rainbow roll ($9.95), a California roll topped with raw red and white tuna and salmon, seems, at this point, almost prosaic. And then our entreés arrive.

Speaking of pigs: The pornographic Babe on the Stick ($15.95) turns out to be beautifully grilled, slightly smoky spears of marinated pork tenderloin, hot and moist enough to satisfy any thirst. A sweet-and-sour green papaya salad and a pile of perfumey jasmine rice make for textural and temperate contrast. At this point, of course, the platter of Fah special fried rice ($11.95) ought to feel like one platter too many. But it's delicately scented, oily, loaded with marinated strips of grilled beef and chicken, with curled pink shrimp, pillowy scallops, furls of squid, ribbons of fried egg, chopped scallions, and a scattering of green peas — an absolutely faultless fried rice that ought to make Fah a local legend: They deliver free for orders over $20! For your next Netflix night, the Thai spring roll ($4.95); the fried rice (there's also a vegetable version for $8.95); and either the Babe or the salmon teriyaki ($16.95) will total out at $30.95, plus tax and tip. This bag o' bliss will keep you, your beloved, and your best single friend occupied during the 104 highly saturated pink and turquoise minutes it takes to run Tears of the Black Tiger.

Our waitress sidles over with the check. "Hey, wait a second — what's for dessert?" we say. By this time, the manager and most of the rest of the staff have come by our table on the pretext of checking in to get a load of the famous and bottomless American appetite as applied to Asian fusion. This beautiful girl: Her mouth goes slack, her eyes dull.

"Just kidding!"

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miles
Fah Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar

7461 N. Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL 33487

561-241-0400

www.fahasianbistro.com


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