Diner: Bamboozled

Newport's Bamboo Club is still working out the kinks

Newport on the Levee is expanding its culinary horizons in many directions — fish (Mitchell's), diner fare (Johnny Rockets), pizza (Dewey's), Irish (Claddagh), high-end Italian (Brio Tuscan Grill). The latest addition is to the East: The Bamboo Club. If you like P. F. Chang's, the popular national chain found locally at Rookwood Commons in Norwood, you'll find yourself on familiar ground at Bamboo. This is the seventh Bamboo Club, a chain which has plans to expand from its Arizona base to other parts of the country. Newport is the first prototype location.

After getting lost in the Levee's parking garage — who designed that place? It's got to be the worst garage in town to navigate — you find your way to mezzanine level. Following a walkway south along the building's façade, you'll arrive at Bamboo's entrance. Inside is a big curved bar and an area decorated with unusual bamboo sculptures and oversized foliage.

The rest of the big open space (6,800 square feet, seating 250) continues this Asian décor with black ceilings, custom lampshades and wall murals featuring leaf patterns and scenes of life in the Orient.

Lots of four-top tables fill the open area, which tends to get noisy; some tables have a view out the southern windows. In the center of the room are half-booths for four: Bench seats are for half the table and chairs for the other half.

That's where we ended up: We left the chairs for our two guests and slid into the bench, which seemed nice at first but, by the evening's end, we found it too constricted for comfort. Our table location, facing the noisy kitchen and in the flight pattern for every guest being seated, was not conducive to dinner conversation.

Bamboo Club's menu is divided into five areas — steamed, grilled, sizzled, "woked" and noodled — though not nearly as many choices as in more traditional Chinese restaurants.

We tried two appetizers: Soothing Lettuce Wraps ($8) and Crispy Spinach ($4). The wraps, cups of iceberg lettuce and a platter of filling made of of rice, vegetables, chicken and shrimp, served with a plum sauce, were pleasant. (I prefer P. F. Chang's version, however, where you get to mix your own sauce and vary its piquancy according to your preference.) The spinach was unusual: a bowl of spinach leaves that were flash-fried, making them delicate and crispy. The texture was intriguing — they melted in your mouth — but they were almost flavorless without an optional sprinkling of soy sauce.

I'm a big fan of Pad Thai ($11) and I've tried it at most of our area's Thai restaurants. The Bamboo Club's version was an ample serving with a mixture of shrimp and chicken in the peanut-accented sauce over rice noodles. The menu warned that it would be spicy, but it did not approach the moderately hot 4 on a scale of 10 that I traditionally get.

We also ordered Steamed Halibut with Ginger Garlic Sauce ($17), which was served with well-prepared asparagus, not mushy. The sauce was an excellent compliment, but the fish had cooled off too much before serving.

I had a side order of Chinese Green Beans ($6), my favorite dish of the evening. The steamed cooked beans still had a bit of a snap to them, but the dish's unique personality came from a sharp chili sauce that had a lingering effect

The Bamboo Club takes reservations — they get extra points for that, a service too many restaurants seem to have given up on today — and they say, "Our waiters wait. Our customers don't." Unfortunately, we were bamboozled by unforgivably erratic service. When we arrived, a server introduced himself and asked for drink orders, which were delivered quickly. But nearly 20 minutes passed, and our food order still hadn't been taken. We looked around for our server, who was nowhere to be found: Another appeared and took our orders; then suddenly our original server was back on the scene.

As we were eating our appetizers, we wanted a few more pieces of lettuce, and our drinks had run dry. After trying to flag down our original server twice, one of us left the table to tell him what we needed. When our main course was delivered by yet a third server, he twice interrupted animated conversations with our guests, once to whisk away a bowl of rice he'd just delivered, telling us it wasn't acceptable.

I'm willing to forgive haphazard service in a new place when the food is good. The Bamboo Club was voted one of the top 10 restaurants in Phoenix, their hometown, so I presume they know how to do it right. I hope not too many local diners have the experience I did, or they'll soon be availing themselves of the many other choices at Newport on the Levee. ©

The Bamboo Club
Go: Newport on the Levee, Newport

Call: 859-261-2921

Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-Midnight, Sunday 11 a.m-10 p.m. (Bar closes at 1 a.m. Monday-Saturday; at 11 p.m. Sunday)

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Menu has lots of seafood and chicken, plus many purely vegetarian choices.

Other: Reservations are invited. "Happiness Hour" from 2-6 p.m. and half-price on selected drinks and appetizers after 10 p.m.

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