As a West Ashley resident, Red Orchids has become a reliable go-to when I'm in the mood for superior Chinese food. In fact, until Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen arrived downtown this year, the Sam Rittenberg establishment was one of the only places in Charleston I'd turn to for great Chinese cuisine; it seriously nullifies the goopy and over-fried whatnots found at the average buffet. So it was exciting to hear that Tony and Kelly Chu had taken their Red Orchids know-how and applied it to yet another strip mall location, this time in Mt. Pleasant next door to Whole Foods. After sampling the brand-new Aya Cookhouse, it's clear that the Chus knows how to defy the shopping-center stigma and make their upscale Asian fare the focus.
On the night I visited my dinner guests and I received a friendly welcome at the door, and I immediately took in the beautifully done decor: white walls, black geometric overlays, red-backed booths, simple chandeliers, a large, comfortable bar. But it was also too nice a night to ignore the patio seating, despite the less appealing parking-lot surroundings. The outdoor atmosphere was nothing some great company, cocktails, and dishes couldn't distract us from. When it's outside dining weather in Charleston, one must take advantage, and I'm glad this is an option at Aya.
The alfresco dining inspired us to dive right into the summery drink menu. My cocktail, the Southern Ash ($9.50), was an inventive blend of Belvedere tomato vodka, fresh watermelon lemonade, basil, and jalapeño, the latter of which was swiped around the glass's rim. Thankfully, the server confirmed I like it spicy. My friend's Sweet Amelia ($10) was refreshing: Belvedere grapefruit vodka with Saint Germain, Cointreau, grapefruit juice, and Fernet Branca bitters. The last one of the round was the Spanking Mary ($11), and it left the best impression collectively with its bold blend of Ardberg Scotch whisky with Zing Zang bloody Mary mix, Sriracha, lime juice, and olives. We also tried the Cape Cod ($7.5), and although I loved its infusion of bay leaves in vodka, in the end I found that the others trumped this sweet vodka, ginger beer, and cranberry concoction.
Unlike Red Orchids, the food menu at Aya is simplified and short, and we were thankful for that. It was hard to choose from the small plate and salad selection of items like the fried shrimp wontons ($6), lamb skewers ($8), and southern Asian grilled charsiu chicken wings ($8). We ultimately decided on the crispy scallion cakes ($6), apparently a popular Xi'an street snack. Its soy dipping sauce was salty, sweet, and a good complement although we liked the pan-seared flatbread triangles on their own, too. Our pork buns ($7) were good despite a slightly doughier bread than I'm accustomed to when it comes to this dish. The buns come folded over slow-braised pork belly with a tasty Korean barbecue sauce and kimchi slaw — a wonderful combo if there ever was one. Finally, the squid salad ($9) was the most uneventful of the three. Although the sautéed squid was perfectly done without a hint of the feared overdone, rubbery texture that usually causes some hesitation when ordering such a dish, the Romaine's edges had turned brown, but still edible. The grapefruit and pineapple, however, went well with the seafood, and the creamy, herbal ginger vinaigrette was good enough to drink.
Entrée options include a dish of sautéed forest mushrooms, tofu, and bok choy ($14), a Chinese black bean and chicken stir-fry ($15), and a Mapo rice gnocchi with ground pork ($16). We reluctantly foregoed the table-sharing plates like the South Korean fried chicken (Seoul Food Dakgangjeong, $23) and the slow-braised meatballs (Chinese Lion Heads, $23) in favor of three regular entrees we shared anyway.
We went for the sautéed shrimp ($15) brushed with a surprisingly light and well-paired sherry peppercorn reduction. It was served with garlicky, al dente string beans. The table's pho ($15) connoisseur found his udon noodle bowl to be a flavorful and filling brew, although he wished more than a few bean sprouts were served with it. The pho is offered with beef, but he opted for lamb, and dressed it up with all the standard fixings: cilantro, Sriracha, bean sprouts, lime wedges, green onions, chili peppers, and basil. It was as comforting as pho tends to be, and though it was a healthy and guilt-free fill, we simply couldn't find room for it all.
Finally, the steamed pork rib rice bowl ($17) was the main attraction as we all ditched our chopsticks and fought for fork bites from this aromatic mountain of food. Seasoned and succulent pork meat falls easily off the sake-brined short ribs and is served atop steamed bok choy and jasmine rice while appropriately thick and full-flavored gravy binds it all together.
Desserts finished us off. The benne cake (black sesame, almond, orange glaze, $6) and silk cheesecake (cookie crust, cream cheese, soymilk, and sake berry sauce, $17) were on offer, but we could only find room for the crème brûlée ($6)and chocolate pâté ($9). Call me old-fashioned, but brûlées are still hard to pass up even after all these years. At least this one was a bit updated with its infusion of ginger. The dessert was even topped with candied ginger shavings, and was great. The chocolate pâté was understandably rich with a truffle-like texture and mix of dark chocolate and Ardberg Scotch ganache. Our server kindly asked if everyone was a fan of strong whiskey when taking our dessert order as the pâté was soaked with the stuff. The pâté was sprinkled with crushed pistachio crumbs and covered with sea salt. We wished there had been a little less salt as this heavy-handed combo with the additional bite of the whiskey was a bit much, but the olive oil drizzle on the plate was a pleasing touch.
With gems like Aya at our fingertips, subpar Asian fare should be a thing of the past. I'll definitely be back to sample the family-style dishes the next time I get a craving for something good accompanied with smiling, attentive service and unpretentious ambience.