Ajii Asian Kitchen

Food: ()

Chef Joe Kim is still refining recipes and flavors in the broths and sauces.

Service: ()

Counter staff seems less than energetic and not especially knowledgeable.

Atmosphere: ()

Bright, spacious cafe space lacks a distinctive ambiance.

More Info

Location: 320 SW Century Drive, Suite 410, Bend

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Cuisine: East Asian

Price range: Noodles and broths $8 to $12, bowls $8 to $14

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Kids’ menu: Several dishes priced $5 to $7

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: All options are so designated on the menu

Alcoholic beverages: Beer and sake.

Outdoor seating: No

Reservations: No

Contact: ajiibend.com, 541-382-3335

Joe Kim is a brilliant chef, certainly deserving of his three consecutive James Beard Foundation semifinalist nominations as “best chef, Northwest.”

At downtown Bend’s 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar, where he presides over the kitchen on a nightly basis, he offers a stunning and savory variety of Asian-influenced dishes — selections inspired by Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai cultures. The food is great. The service and atmosphere are likewise first-class.

That’s why Kim’s new restaurant, Ajii Asian Kitchen, is a disappointment. The California-born, Oregon-educated chef has set the bar high, but he has failed to achieve what he’s shown himself capable of elsewhere.

“It’s been a struggle trying to keep up with the initial volume, and trying to get the flavors in the broths and the sauces where I want them,” said Kim, who still spends more time in the kitchen at 5 Fusion than Ajii. “I do feel like we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s a work in progress.”

Ajii — pronounced “ah-jee,” the Japanese word for taste — opened Thanksgiving week, in a west-side mall space between Safeway and Starbucks that previously was home to a Pilot Butte Drive-In location. Like its predecessor, Ajii is a counter-service, fast-food establishment. Its theme, however, is very different.

Noodle bar

Ajii presents itself as a noodle bar that also serves rice bowls and a handful of other East Asian dishes. Ramen and udon soups highlight the menu, but there are a variety of other dishes including yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), Thai papaya salad, Korean bulgogi and okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake rarely seen in the Northwest.

But whatever hip energy one feels at 5 Fusion, it’s not there at Ajii. Redesigned by Kim and his wife and partner, Laura, the Century Drive space is bright, spacious and well-maintained, but it lacks a distinctive atmosphere. With its lacquered, particle-board tables beneath a high ceiling on a polished concrete floor, this could more easily be a sandwich shop than a cafe serving exotic dishes.

And I would love to see Ajii’s young counter staff greet new arrivals with a hearty “Irrashai-mase!” (Welcome!) Instead, some merely stand and wait for orders without offering any real knowledge of Asian food or ingredients. Orders are delivered to diners when they are prepared, but actual table service would be far more appealing.

The flavors can be as bland as the environment. My dining companion and I have visited three times in recent weeks, hoping for more ajii in our dishes, but we’ve been largely dissatisfied.

Regional ramen

Osaka ramen is one of five Japanese-style ramen dishes on the menu. There are regional variations of ramen throughout the country, but all use wheat noodles in a meat- or fish-based broth.

Ajii’s Osaka ramen is made with a tonkatsu (pork) base. It includes sliced pork belly and cutlet, along with crispy scallions, bean sprouts, fresh baby spinach and a halved egg, boiled medium. A large bowl ($12) gave me more than I wanted; a smaller bowl ($10), about three-quarters the size, would have been sufficient.

Taipei glass-noodle soup is made with the translucent, gluten-free “cellophane” noodles often seen in Chinese cooking. Bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, scallions and spinach are simmered in a broth that can be made with chicken or in vegan style. Although the menu said the broth was spicy, I found myself reaching for extra hot sauce.

Bowls are all gluten-free and offered with a choice of rice. My friend opted for a vegetarian Thai peanut bowl with diced tofu and brown rice. Cabbage, kale, onions, carrots and bok choy were cooked along with an overly generous amount of bean sprouts, in a coconut milk peanut sauce. She complained that she couldn’t distinguish the flavors of individual ingredients that were richly blended.

My lemongrass beef bowl was similarly heavy, its main ingredients being strips of grilled sirloin steak in a lemongrass reduction. Cabbage, kale, onions, carrots, bok choy and bean sprouts were served on rice.

‘Not there yet’

As a fan of Thai food, I love papaya salad. Ajii’s chilled version was not memorable. Strips of green papaya and carrot were served with peanuts, jalapeño peppers, crispy shallots and an overload of bean sprouts, along with a sprinkling of herbs and tofu cubes. (Chicken was also available.)

My favorite dish at Ajii is okonomiyaki. (Say “oh-konomi-YA-kee,” and think, fried what-have-you.) It’s been a favorite of mine during visits to see my brother in Japan. Kim’s staff does it justice. A unique dough that combines Japanese mountain yam with wheat flour and egg provides the base for a pizzalike dish that includes cabbage, kale, onions, carrots and bean sprouts. It’s topped with bacon and a sweet kewpie sauce of mayonnaise and Sriracha, then layered with nori and bonito seaweeds.

Joe Kim knows he has work ahead of him. “I want Ajii to be my outlet for the more casual version of the foods that I can’t serve at 5 Fusion,” he said. “I love ramen. I’ve studied ramen for years. I know it’s not there yet (at Ajii). We’re working collectively as a staff, but it really does fall on me.”

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com .