by Eric Ginsburg
There’s hope for High Point, and it looks great.
Any time people in one Triad city are talking about a restaurant in another, particularly in High Point, it’s a pretty good indicator that something worthwhile is going on. But not only can 98 Asian Bistro hold its own with other Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in the Triad, but what it means for High Point is significant.
The new restaurant, in a converted auto shop just off the main drag, feels a little out of place. While the city certainly boasts a handful of classy restaurants, a friend who grew up in High Point and works in the food industry throughout the Triad said the Third City has nothing like this. And that certainly appears to be true.
It would be reasonable to expect that any restaurant where everything on the lunch menu is $8 might not provide the greatest ambiance, might skimp on portions or slack on service. Not so here.
The couple running 98 Asian Bistro formerly operated a Thai restaurant in town, but the new venue is anything but a recycled concept or design. Yes, the menu items can be found at other similar restaurants around the Triad, from the pad Thai chicken to the lemongrass beef, and the execution is strong, but what makes the bistro stand out is the space itself.
Long, golden curtains hang freely under a high ceiling, and comfortable pillows are spaced between tables at a booth against the wall. The relatively large space is well laid out, maintaining an upscale and intimate feel even during a lunch rush. A bar with two muted televisions is tucked away in the back of the room, a welcome move that keeps the areas separate and cuts down on distractions.
It would have been easy to overdo it with the small statues or ornate pieces of gold art on the walls, but whoever is responsible for the interior design here knew what they were doing. Best of all, a well lit, private room with booth seats pulled closely around a table looks like a comfortable place to recline and hold a small dinner party with close friends.
It might seem that the décor should be secondary to the food — and it is — but it fosters an environment that makes people want to linger and keep ordering dishes to share family-style or order another drink with a date. Simply put, 98 Asian Bistro is cool.
Unlike other restaurants serving pho, the dish here automatically comes with chicken, and lettuce is offered on the side on rather than, say, basil. A sprinkling of cilantro comes already in the bowl, which isn’t particularly noticeable even to someone who has an aversion to it because of all the other flavors and ingredients around it.
The coconut milk in the pranang curry with chicken comes across prominently, and the dish — like others — won’t come spicy unless diners request it. Do so; it allows the spicy curry and coconut milk to complement each other as they seep into the rice, chicken and red bell peppers.
The restaurant closes between lunch and dinner, and each meal comes with four silver containers with spices to add that enhance dishes such as the pho noodle soup with chicken. The herbs and spices are handpicked nearby. Only one thing is slightly amiss here — patrons paying with cards use an iPad brought to the table and cash customers are handed back change directly rather than in a check holder, a practice in use at other businesses to be sure but still out of step with the refined vibe of the restaurant.
The service at 98 Asian Bistro is attentive but not overbearing, a sign of appropriate staffing and training that is more rare than it should be in the Triad. And one of the owners can be found calmly working the floor alongside her team in the beautiful restaurant.
One restaurant doesn’t change a city on its own, but the significance of a place that is the full package — beautiful, delicious and affordable — especially when it could mark a sea change for a city struggling to reinvent itself shouldn’t be overlooked.
There is a lot of discussion about what it will take to resuscitate the Triad’s Third City, but while the public debate raged and as a new city council tries to coalesce around a defibrillation strategy, 98 Asian Bistro may be one of the small-scale harbingers everyone is searching for.
Now the people just need to follow suit.
Visit 98 Asian Bistro at 1800 N. Main St., Suite 106 (HP) or at 98asianbistro.com