First Look: Tom Catherall's Aja

"Is it OK to use religion as a decorating theme?" I asked Wayne.

"It certainly wouldn't work if the images were Christian," he told me, "but this works."

We had just taken our seats before the 10-feet-tall brass Buddha at Aja (3500 Lenox Road, Suite 100, 404-231-0001), Tom Catherall's newest member of his Here to Serve Restaurants group.

"So," I told Wayne, "you don't think a 10-feet-tall brass statue of Jesus would go over as the main decorative feature of a restaurant in Atlanta?"

"Maybe ... uh, probably not. Nah."

Catherall, who – fair disclosure – recognized us as soon as we entered Aja, is not the first restaurateur to make the Buddha central to his decor. New York's Buddha Bar, Buddakan and Tao do the same. Still, I asked Catherall if he expected any criticism in this respect.

"Not at all," he said. "I bought the statue myself in Thailand and they had a ceremony to 'un-bless' it before they shipped it here. Then, after it arrived, some monks conducted a ceremony here to bless it again."

It is interesting to wonder why use of the Buddha's image in this context doesn't raise eyebrows among Buddhists, while the image of Christ would undoubtedly produce controversy among Christians. Maybe it has to do with the different ways Buddhists and Christians imagine life. The dominant image of Christianity is the tormented Christ while the Buddha is the embodiment of serenity, wearing a half-smile of calm abiding right here, in this life.

And then there's the fact that I've found most American Buddhists to be virtual connoisseurs, quite comfortable with pleasure. And Aja offers much of that. The huge brass Buddha, surrounded by candles, is the dominant feature of the dining room, but there are many other images, classical and modern, that have been worked into the huge space by the same folks who designed Holeman & Finch. It's a grand improvement over Emeril's, the earlier tenant – both more electric, with plenty of fire-cracker red, and more serene, with glowing golds. You get the full range of "smoldering."

Executive chef is William Sigley, whom Catherall hired away from Aquaknox. He is assisted by a staff of cooks from virtually every country in the East.

The pan-Asian menu, developed by Catherall, is a return to the inspirations of the Asian fusion cuisine at Azalea, his first restaurant in Atlanta. As such, I'm tempted to say that the restaurant has more of Catherall the chef in it than his mega-hits Twist, Lola and Shout, which are as much drinking and party spots as restaurants – not that the same potential isn't present at Aja.

The menu features sushi – there's a bar fronting the open kitchen – along with dim sum and entrees served family-style. We tried a couple of items off the dim sum cart, including some dumplings (shumai) stuffed with crab and shrimp. Catherall's kitchen features a fancy piece of equipment that steams many baskets of dumplings at once and the results appear to be excellent.

What we really liked, though, were the steamed barbecued pork buns. At $9 for two, they cost about twice what they do in the average Chinese restaurant, but these are about 10 times better than average. They are made with seasoned pork belly and the buns themselves were exquisite – fluffy and melt-in-the-mouth instead of doughy and chewy. You will not encounter the usual livid orange, either.

We tried two entrées. The Singapore-style chicken, called the "house special," was the best chicken I've eaten in a very long time. It was simply prepared and not heavily seasoned. Cut into pieces that are fairly manageable with chopsticks, it's served over rice with three straightforward sauces on the side. You don't want to mask the flavor of the chicken, so go light on the sauce.

We also ordered a bowl of fat rice noodles in broth with more pork belly, mushrooms and a bit of bok choy. Like the chicken dish, this one was all about pure flavors. The mushrooms, which are often tasteless, rehydrated clumps of chewiness elsewhere, had especially good taste. Strips of pork belly topped the noodles and bits of the meat swam in the broth.

Desserts were true to Catherall's style – witty and unexpected. Wayne ordered a young coconut, hollowed and filled with coconut sorbet and lemongrass granitas. It was topped with a little parasol, Don-the-Beachcomber-style. Wayne dug every morsel of tender white flesh out of the shell. I did find the sorbet a bit watery, wishing for something creamier to contrast the coconut itself.

My dessert was a parfait of vanilla-lime panna cotta layered with mango and topped with fresh blueberries and sago pearls. You get oscillating textures of crisp (blueberries), chewy (pearls) and creamy (panna cotta), along with a range of sweet and tart flavors.

Service at the restaurant, which was not crowded on a Sunday night, was terrific, but, as I said, I was recognized. The recognition factor would not account for the servers' range from adorable to gorgeous, though.

Complaints? My only serious one does pertain to the service but it has nothing to do with the performance of the servers. Wayne and I are both adept with chopsticks, but we were completely confused about how to eat a good bit of this food.

The barbecued pork buns, for example, were too tender to pick up with the fingers and thus were doubly difficult with chopsticks. We made a mess. Although the presentation of our entrees was described as family-style, they were set in front of us as if they were not for sharing. I had to ask for separate plates and bowls. Dividing the noodles with only a single small soup spoon and chopsticks was laborious. The rice under the Singapore chicken was not sticky and just about impossible to pick up with chopsticks, too.

Aja's menu offers mainly classic, slightly tweaked Asian dishes – from Thailand to China and India – and I look forward to trying more. Obviously, pan-Asian restaurants in our city offer varying degrees of "fusion" experimentation. Catherall's gift at Azalea and Tom Tom was always to avoid the baroque excesses of much haute fusion cooking while still surprising the palate with novel combinations and assertive flavors. Those who recall his style then will find Aja a bit of déjà vu.

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