There's Chinese food -- the salty, greasy bits packed into little white containers that, while momentarily satisfying, leave you with a heavy stomach and the desire to steer clear of the stuff for the next six months.
Then there's Chinese food … light, fragrant dishes made with fresh, crisp vegetables and perfect sauces, which leave you wanting more.
The latter is what you'll find at Asia Star, a treasure of a restaurant tucked along Asbury Avenue in Tinton Falls.
Walking into Asia Star is an instant trip across the Pacific, thanks to the Oriental wall hangings and decorations throughout, and the white-coated chef behind the sushi bar. It's obvious the eatery's owners take great pride in their restaurant -- each table is topped with a crisp, white tablecloth and a small vase of flowers, and the servers are most attentive. Even with restaurants, the difference is in the details.
Asia Star's menu lives up to the restaurant's name, with a hefty sampling of Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines, as well as a varied selection of sushi and sashimi.
We started our meal with two appetizers -- steamed pork gyoza (which also come pan-fried, and stuffed with shrimp or vegetables), and spring rolls, the egg roll's thinner-skinned cousin. The gyoza ($4.95 for six) -- which were beautifully crimped and served alongside soy sauce specked with sliced scallions -- melted in our mouths, the kick of the soy sauce the perfect accent for the delicate dumplings. The spring rolls ($3 for 2), less greasy than an egg roll and a little more dainty, were delicious as well.
We also ordered a pot of ginger tea for the table. The drink is a special one, made with slices of ginger steeped in the pot, and sweetened just right. Ginger's distinctive bite isn't for everyone, but if you enjoy the flavor, be sure to order a pot.
We stuck with familiar entrees -- General Tso's chicken, chicken in garlic sauce and beef mo fun. The general's chicken ($10.95) was served with a healthy serving of perfectly cooked, bright green broccoli, and although I thought the dish could have used a bit more heat (the menu noted it was "hot and spicy"), it was delicious. If you've only ever had this dish as take-out, you're really missing out -- Asia Star's version, though fried, is not at all greasy. Instead, each piece was perfectly crisp, even through the sauce on top.
The chicken in garlic sauce ($9.95) is served with wide, flat noodles (wide lo mein noodles, possibly?), broccoli and red and green peppers. The garlic flavor was't too heavy; instead, the rich, brown sauce was subtle, and a great complement to the rest of the ingredients.
The beef chow fun ($7.95) was good as well, though not overly impressive. It was made with very thin strips of beef, sprouts, and red and green peppers -- and a very thinly sliced vegetable we're pretty sure was jicama -- in a very thin sauce.
These three dishes were more than enough for three diners, especially when paired with small pots of white rice. Aside from the missing heat in the General Tso's chicken, my only other suggestion would be for the chef to add some snap peas to the veggies offered with the dishes, as their flavor and crunch pair well with and hold up to the sauces in these types of dishes.
We finished our meal off a shared serving of tempura-battered fried bananas, served with vanilla ice cream. Delicious.
The usual Chinese food dishes … moo goo gai pan, pepper steak, sweet and sour chicken, etc., plus two menu pages' worth of sushi, and Thai soups. Starters that looked fantastic include duck crepes, served with fresh mango and jicama and a hoisin sauce; crab rangoon, scallion pancakes and pineapple fried rice, which I know, thanks to a previous visit, is impressively served in a
half a pineapple.
As soon as we finished eating and I put my fork down, I wanted to pick it up and start all over again. It doesn't get any better than that.