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Wild East Pan-Asian Bistro offers recession-proof prices 

Asia is a continent with larger-than-life cuisines; some have become entwined throughout that region. By the time these cuisines are represented in the U.S., they become entangled with various taste preferences and expectations. In the current economic climate, new restaurateurs favor those cuisines that have worked in the recent past, those appealing to a broad audience. Nothing could be broader than all of Asia when it comes to cuisines.

Currently the top two Asian cuisines in town are Japanese -- and by that I mean sushi -- and Thai. Sushi eateries are the new Whac-a-Mole, popping up at random.

While some restaurateurs experiment with expanded menus to include a sampling of Asian favorites, others resort to adding anything Asian to their roster. We have all seen nachos and sushi on the same menu. Meanwhile, Singapore noodles have become as ubiquitous as tapas were a decade ago.

So I was not surprised when co-owners Jason Wang, brothers Chunan (Lester) Li, Managing Partner Steve Li, Itamae Ivan Li, and Executive Chef Ken Phu opened the 85-seat (including the patio) Wild East Pan-Asian Bistro in a spot on Carmel Road. That part of south Charlotte is tricky and has been heartbreaking to many restaurateurs.

The wide ranging menu of Wild East is a composite of Thai, Japanese, Cantonese and Szechuan cuisines and the owners' personal philosophy of cooking, which is expounded on the take-out menu, promising the exclusive use of low sodium soy sauce and canola oil, and the ban of MSG. Clearly, though, the sense here is toward a lighter, clean flavor profile as found in Cantonese cuisine -- the food of the native region of many of these owners.

Cantonese is the original regal cuisine of China and is frequently maligned for being mellow, yet historically it is a style of healthy cooking. The emperor's chef could showcase the ingredients rather than obliterating them with too much heat or sauce. This is also a current trend: presenting high quality food without a lot of fuss.

Evidence of Cantonese cuisine is tastefully presented in Wild East's Hong Kong-style pan-fried noodles, a Chinese-styled agglomeration of textures with shrimp, tender squid, steamed large New Zealand green mussels and diver scallops. While I would agree the scallops would have benefited from butter searing (my Occidental predilection), the broccoli and mushrooms retained their flavors. This dish is representative of the restrained hand of a trained Cantonese chef allowing the individual foods to speak for themselves and not be awash in cheap overtly sweet sauces that have become the hallmark of Americanized Chinese food.

Equally satisfying are the delightfully spiked Szechuan wonton-wrapped chicken dumplings lazing in a pool of heat-driven peanut sauce. The Japanese offerings are less successful and muffled. The house rolls are a predictable lot, many of them with fried or cooked items. One roll, the Wild King, is wholly deep-fried. Surprising, though, with this much frying going on, the tempura, while serenely plated, lacks the traditional flavor note of sesame oil. Also lacking was the schmear of wasabi on the sushi (you will need to add some to the shoyu dish.) The sections in which you will find heat are the Thai, including the many curries, and Szechuan offerings.

The focal point of Wild East's dining room is the sushi bar, and the interior has been radically changed for the better from its last restaurant occupant. Ironically, even the once wild-looking camellias have been tamed. Though the exterior still bears the look of a bank, the dining room is refreshed with peaceful Zen-like hues, comfortable booths and candlelight. An extensive patio is to one side of the building.

Prices are mild: Some of the starters are bargains while others are modestly priced and portioned. Entrées range from $7 for vegetable lo mein to $24 for a lobster, shrimp and scallop dish. Currently the $2 glass of house wine special is popular.

While we -- OK, I -- may miss the days of exotic, rarely glimpsed ingredients on esoteric menus, the reality is if a restaurateur can satisfy the varied tastes and palates of a small group with a straightforward, diverse menu, it makes both sense and cents. That is what Pan-Asian (and New American) cooking is all about: covering the bases to keep the customers coming in the door -- a functional recipe for 2010.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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