Bambu became the place to be in Mt. Pleasant soon after it opened in early 2009. Young professionals and dapper locals flocked to the trendy bar and made it their new home. Three years on, it's still the hippest spot east of the Cooper.
Aside from a missing jellyfish, Bambu looks the same as it did when it opened, and that's a good thing. Its best feature is the large outdoor patio, which has plenty of tables, a VIP booth, a trickling fountain, shady palm trees, and twinkling lights. It's the perfect place to sip an afternoon cocktail or listen to music when the weather is nice. The Asian pear mojito ($7) tastes like a liquefied pear Jelly Belly, and the Shisojito is a crafty combination of citron, shiso (a Japanese herb similar to mint with a hint of licorice flavor), candied ginger, and ginger beer ($8). Both offer big flavors but are still quite sippable.
Inside, the dark, modern-meets-exotic decor is lit with flickering candles. The long glowing bar and a big circular aquarium on the wall give the room a swanky vibe.
The layout of the menu hasn't changed much, with two main sections: Sushi and Asian Fusion. The Asian Fusion side includes soups and salads, small plates, large plates, and sides, while the sushi side is composed of small plates, nigiri, sashimi, and a large selection of rolls. While some of the traditional dishes, like pot stickers and spring rolls, are still on the menu, a lot of other items have changed. Local clams are steamed with lemongrass and topped with zesty citrus basil butter as a Lowcountry offering with Asian flair ($10), while the edamame spinach dip ($6/$9) is a creative twist on the classic spinach and artichoke dip, served warm with crispy wonton chips.
The Asian Fusion entrées have gotten a lot better since I last visited a couple of years ago. The Thai Basil ($13) is plated with a large mound of spicy minced chicken, onions, green beans, and, of course, basil, with a small side of jasmine rice. It's not overly spicy and offers a bit of sweetness — an overall delightful dish. The pad Thai ($15) has plenty of chicken and shrimp in a tamarind peanut sauce. The only drawback is there's a bit too much sourness going on; perhaps cutting back on some of the citrus would help.
The sushi side of the menu is hit or miss. The small plates are all solid dishes to share with the table. The beef tataki is rare and flavorful with moderately spicy kimchee, diced scallions, and tart ponzu sauce. A favorite is the juicy seared octopus ($10), tangy and salty, accompanied by red onions, cilantro, housemade kimchee, and thin slivers of jalapeño to give the dish a lingering bite.
The list of rolls is separated into specialty, crunchy, and tempura options. There are a lot of creative and appealing choices like the Mt. Pleasant (tempura lobster with sriracha and cucumber rolled up and topped with tuna, avocado, and wasabi mayo for $14), and the Pacific (spicy tuna, kani, and cucumber rolled and topped with thin slices of seared sea scallop, jalapeños, onions, and kimchee sauce for $13). Then, of course, they have the traditional California, Philly, and Rainbow rolls to simplify things. Overall, the rolls are presented well and taste good. The only problem is that the seafood seems to be overshadowed by the other flavors from the additional toppings, though that's probably the idea, as some may not be bold enough to dive into a plate of nigiri or sashimi.
And that's where Bambu starts to fumble. I ordered the chef's choice nigiri combination (starting at $12 for five pieces) and out came a lackluster plate of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, whitefish, and escolar, with a tuna roll, a small pile of ginger, wasabi, and slices of lemon that looked beat up. The tuna roll looked like it was cut with a dull knife, its edges rigid and messy, and the nigiri resembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The fish didn't taste any better than it looked. It wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't anything special. Most of the pieces were chewy, the texture was off, and it just didn't taste fresh.
The service at Bambu is pretty good overall, but there are areas that could use some attention. When the nigiri combination was set on the table, there was no explanation as to what we were about to eat. Sure, it may be easy for most to point out salmon and tuna, but not everyone is going to be able to identify every fish on the plate, so descriptions would be nice. In addition, one of the guests at the table ordered Sprite, which was refilled with water even after the server was reminded of the original order. Small details go a long way in providing superior service.
Aside from that, Bambu has gotten better in many ways. The refined menu offers plenty of options worth trying, and the decor inside and out has a modern vibe that is still one of the best in town. As the weather gets warmer, the patio will flood with locals looking for a quick bite while sipping on creative cocktails in the open air. The price points aren't bad, and the service needs minimal work. What's really shocking is the quality of the nigiri. It's disappointing, but it certainly won't keep me from going back. I'll just stick to the seared octopus or Thai basil, knowing I'll leave satisfied.