The Bong Show
A new restaurant called Bong has opened on the site where Boca Raton's popular Mezzanotte restaurant used to stand. The space has been totally revamped, allegedly at a cost of $2.7 million; after taking a good look around, I can only wonder where all that money went. It's not that the modern, 200-seat, 7,000-square-foot interior isn't attractive. In fact, with its graceful curves, elegantly upholstered banquettes, and bright, multicolored silk umbrellas hanging from a lofty ceiling, the main dining room looks like a million bucks; just not $2.7 million. The exterior is likewise less than awe-inspiring, mostly due to a curious absence of landscaping; outdoor seating areas in front and back are as cold and charmless as a coffee shop. Still, since opening in January, Bong has been drawing a full house of Boca locals -- they're not elderly, but neither are they members of the bong-hit generation.
They call the cuisine here "Asian fusion." It's a mix of mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Thai, with a few token tastes from Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The word fusion is actually unnecessary, as the various Asian countries are culinary cousins with a common approach to cooking. Soups, for instance, are an integral part of the dining experience throughout the continent, and because other fare is intensely flavored, they tend toward the mild; Bong's Chinese wonton and Japanese miso serve as textbook examples. An exception would be hot and sour tom yum soup from Thailand, a potently piquant mix that is customarily sipped in small spoonfuls throughout the meal to continually stimulate the palate. Bong's version is replete with shrimp, straw mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and a hint of fresh cilantro in pleasantly sour broth, but the bite has been so thoroughly bated that one needn't ration it out gingerly.
The rest of the cuisine, like the tom yum, is fresh but forgettable and Americanized to the point of barely being Asian at all. The appetizers, for instance, include chicken and shrimp dumplings, tempura shrimp and vegetables, Vietnamese summer rolls, crab cake with wasabi mayo, fried calamari with Thai chili dipping sauce, and steamed mussels with lemon grass -- just about all of which are available at the Cheesecake Factory. It would be nice if Bong gave us something we couldn't get elsewhere, like the modern takes on authentic Asian food found at Georges Vongrichten's Vong restaurant in New York. Bong is no Vong. It is not even China Grill. It perhaps most closely approximates Stir Crazy -- but without the customized wok station.
Chef Tep Vichyavichien, who worked for two decades on Chinatown's Mott Street, starts off diners with the standard, premeal Hong Kong snack of fried noodles, but he dramatically translates it into two towering triangles of freshly fried wonton skins that rise vertically from a stainless steel cone. They are crisper, lighter, and undeniably nicer to look at than the traditional version, but the sweet-and-sour sauce was the same bright orange goo; plus, there was no dish of hot mustard.
The starters we tried likewise partnered clever conception with clumsy execution. A "ginger scallion Peking duck crepe" featured dark, tasty duck meat rolled blintz-style into a thin pancake; but advertised "wok sauteed vegetables" were replaced by a dollop of chopped mango, and shiitake mushrooms were embedded in a brown sauce that tasted as though it came from a packet of instant gravy. Lamb satay presented a trio of wooden skewers pierced through grilled, flattened disks of meat imbued with Malaysian spices (or so the menu says -- when questioned, the waiter and, later, the manager had no idea the lamb even had Malaysian spices).
Unfortunately, the rare-red lamb was tough, each bite offering more chews than a stick of gum. A small dish of vinegared cucumber bits provided a nice acidic counterpoint to the grease of grilled meat and also rendered a spike of vinegar in the bland peanut sauce redundant.
A half-dozen plump dumplings tasted just fine. Thin wonton skins were wrapped around finely ground and leniently seasoned shrimp and chicken filling. A ramekin of sesame-soy dipping sauce was served on the side. Delivering the dumplings in the steamer basket they're cooked in is an effective means of keeping them hot, especially when, as in this case, the diner who ordered the dumplings was away from the table as they arrived. Actually, it would have been effective had our waiter not removed the steamer lid and carried it away, aromatic puffs of steam leaving with him and long gone, along with any semblance of heat, by the time our ill-fated dining companion returned. Service is like that at Bong -- well-intentioned but not well-trained. Worse, when the place gets filled with diners, the attention each one receives diminishes accordingly, and there doesn't seem to be a floor manager to pick up the slack. You can get around any such service problems by taking a seat at the sleek sushi bar and at the same time witness the slick preparation of a wide selection of sashimi and specialty rolls.
Owner Ernesto "Bong" Santa Maria Jr. wanted to name this restaurant "Rose" in honor of his Filipino mother, but she was too shy for that, so he used his lifelong colloquial nickname instead. His mom is apparently not too reticent to have a chicken dish named after her, but I bet she'd be mortified if she ever tasted it. "Rose's chicken asado," which is listed under "Asian fusion specials," is a panko-breaded breast rolled around roasted red pepper and an innocuous chicken Langoniza sausage, the whole shebang deep-fried and served sliced in half on the diagonal. I don't doubt this would be a delicious dish if prepared with native zest or at least some spice or sauce, but Bong's rendition was the sterile, watered-down sort I imagine gets served at Filipino hospitals and school cafeterias. An accompanying bulb of bok choy and "garlic rice" reinforced the blandness; it contained no garlic or any other seasoning. Another of the "fusion" dishes, whole yellowtail snapper, was, like the chicken, fresh and crisply fried but identified as Asian only by another side of chopped mango and a mild kim chee slaw -- which, incidentally, is an oxymoron.
While one page of the menu touts fusion fare, another lists "traditional" meals like chicken teriyaki, sweet-and-sour pork, and pad Thai, which translates to "Thai fry" and is the starting point for most diners' entry into that country's cuisine. What makes this dish so popular is what makes Oriental cooking so appealing in general, which is the ability to achieve a delicate balance of hot. sour, sweet, and salty flavors in soft and crunchy textures while retaining the individual clarity of each ingredient. Pad Thai typically juggles salty soy and dry shrimp with sweet morsels of pork, a shot of sugar, and tart tamarind; its chewy, rice-stick noodles and softly scrambled egg are counterpointed by crisp peanuts, bean sprouts, and scallions. Bong's pad Thai utilizes fresh shrimp and snippets of chicken breast in place of the dried shrimp and pork. This mutes the contrasts a bit but yields an otherwise satisfactory plate of food.
Bong offers ice creams flavored with red bean or black sesame seeds, but when it comes to the rest of the desserts (crème brulee, macadamia crusted cheesecake, and chocolate cake), the pretense of being an Asian restaurant finally falls away. The switch in ethnicity is more newsworthy than the chocolate cake itself, which was notable only for being eminently average and of the commercially mass-produced variety that relies on an extra-heavy infusion of sugar to keep moist during a long shelf life. Dining at Bong, in fact, is like going on a date with an average Joe or Josephine. The foods are decent but not distinctive enough to warrant a second encounter.
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