I first heard about Bar Dojo from my hairdresser. Soon my best friend was raving about it, too. In a town as small as Edmonds, news travels fast.
Bar Dojo debuted last December, a shared dream of longtime friends Shubert Ho, the chef, and Andrew Leckie, the genial overseer of the dining room. Leckie was born and raised in Edmonds, and locals are equally familiar with Ho. He was the opening chef at Epulo in downtown Edmonds, as well as proprietor of Shooby Doo Catering, now operating out of the Five Corners storefront that houses Bar Dojo.
There’s not much curb appeal to the strip-mall locale, so the warm, inviting interior is a nice surprise. Slatted wooden screens buffer the parking-lot view and block the harsh exterior lighting. Candle glow mellows the butter-colored walls and makes the dark wood trim gleam. Cloth napkins folded into tidy pockets hold a knife, fork and chopsticks. Acoustic tiles overhead make Bar Dojo that rare restaurant where conversation is possible — even when six women are singing “Happy Birthday” at the table next to you.
The ambience is as conducive to caroling as to courting, but families also come here. Solo diners and social butterflies head for the bar. Set discreetly in the rear, it’s the source of imaginative cocktails like Dragon’s Fire, a serrano-spiked tequila-and-lime concoction in a glass rimmed with salt and crushed fried shallots.
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Ho worked in Italian restaurants for much of his professional career, but here he’s cooking food largely inspired by his family’s Taiwanese roots. His pan-Asian menu offers the flexibility of shared plates, noodle bowls and more formal entrees. It’s ambitious but approachable, and the execution is solid.
Complimentary edamame seasoned with white pepper and fried garlic chips get dinner off to a felicitous start. So does the mixed vegetable tempura, an appealing trio that includes green beans, wedges of avocado and slices of Delicata squash.
Wings are a must, advised one of my teenage dining companions, a young man whose family has been here so often the waiter knew him by name. He was right. Seriously good in their crackling bronze casings, those wings deliver such a spicy kick (from a long soak in Frank’s Red Hot sauce) that I dunked them cautiously in the side bowl of chili-lime dip. Not so my young friend, who all but ate the searing red sauce with a spoon.
Sliders were great, too. Pudgy patties of quality beef topped with frizzled shallots and bright cilantro aioli filled glossy brioche buns speckled with black and white sesame seeds. They come in a pair, with excellent shoestring fries on the side.
The popular braised beef noodle bowl is based on Ho’s grandmother’s recipe. An undercurrent of chili heat bolsters the salty, bone-rich broth harboring tender bits of short rib, baby bok choy, fresh cilantro and a soy-steeped hard-cooked egg entwined in fettuccinelike noodles.
On the flip side is a soothing coconut red curry chicken soup. Poke around in the creamy, pink, lime-lightened broth, and you’ll find a few shrimp curled among the ground chicken and wide rice noodles. The tempura squash garnish is a nice bonus.
Among entree plates, I give high marks to near-butter-soft braised pork belly glazed with honey and lemon set against a vibrant, citrus-dressed salad; to moist grilled chicken breast fragrant with lemon grass and its accompanying ginger-spiced sauté of peppers and bok choy; and to cayenne-dusted king salmon paired with pea vines and shiitake-studded risotto.
Kudos to chef de cuisine Zal Smith for her stunning dessert of tea-smoked chocolate mousse under a chocolate ganache dome elegantly accessorized with sesame seed brittle, candied orange segments and a white-and-dark-chocolate straw.
Bar Dojo isn’t perfect. The kitchen’s timing could be sharper; the service could be crisper. Orders go astray, and one night several dishes suffered from burnt, bitter garlic. But the staff is swift to acknowledge errors and make amends. Given that sort of dedication, Bar Dojo could well become an indispensable fixture in the neighborhood, the kind of place where everybody knows your name, and you’re always glad you came.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.