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Blue Ocean Asian Cafe

Blue Ocean chef Ji Gang Li will load you up with leftovers.
Mark Manger

We can't do this anymore."

"We can. I know we can make this work."

"We can't. This has been a problem for too long."

I sighed. "Look. We're both smart people. We're college-educated grownups."

"Well, one of us is, anyway."

"We can figure this out."

Laura crossed her arms and set her jaw. We were standing in the kitchen not looking at each other, the stovetop, counters and floor around us covered with plastic bags, boxes, Styrofoam takeout containers. She was angry. I was hopeful. Both of us were staring into the open refrigerator, trying to figure out what to do about our leftover situation, which had become untenable.

I reached out to gently, lovingly touch her shoulder. "This is something we can fix, Laura."

She shook me off. "No. We can't. We've been trying to fix this for a long time, and I just don't have the energy anymore."

The problem was, neither of us is very good at math -- geometry in particular, the kind of calculations necessary to make maximum use of twenty cubic feet of space when you're packing in dozens of condiment bottles with different sizes and shapes, half-drunk bottles of prosecco, six varieties of cheese in various stages of terminal decay, sour mix, orange juice cartons (for mimosas) and to-go boxes.

No, the real problem was me.

"Laura, it's not you. It's me, okay? It's my fault."

I collect takeout everywhere. At the end of a good night, I often have more takeout stacked in the front seat of my car than I can carry up the stairs in a single trip. Halves of steaks, soggy french fries, weighty boxes of pasta, bits of this and portions of that. Some of my to-go compulsion is work-related. When I need to know exactly what ingredients were in the ravioli, the salade compose or the yak tournedos, it's a comfort to be able to perform a forensic examination of the dish itself. But mostly I bring home leftovers because I am an insomniac and inveterate middle-of-the-night snacker who, owing to the quirks of his unusual employment, often gets to eat foie gras on the couch in his underpants at 3 a.m. while watching Futurama reruns on Adult Swim.

Yeah, Laura's a lucky woman...

Anyway, this most recent refrigerator battle stemmed from our visit earlier that evening to Blue Ocean Asian Cafe, where the portions were so big and the menu so interesting that we'd ordered enough food for a family of seven, eaten enough for a family of four (Laura held up her end while I took care of the other three people), and wound up with enough containers and bags full of leftovers that we needed to employ a heavy cardboard beer case as a conveyance. And then we had to figure out where to put everything.

"I swear to God, Jay, there's just no way we can keep doing this."

Blue Ocean is the second entry in what owner Ji Gang Li hopes will become a group of inter-related, mixed Asian restaurants offering everything from Thai tom yum goong, udon noodles and bamboo-steamed tofu to sesame chicken, Kung Pao beef, New York-style fried half-chickens and rice noodle bowls originating from a half-dozen Southeast Asian addresses. Li's first restaurant, Blue Bay Asian Cafe, in Green Valley Ranch, serves a similar menu; his third restaurant, which is still in the planning stages, will offer more of the same, though perhaps on a bigger, fancier scale. His is a slow-build scenario flavored with dreams of empire, each opening a stepping stone to the next, and the next.

At Blue Ocean, the tiny storefront entrance belies the larger dining room within, its shape like some kind of shotgun-shack bar repurposed for the lunch and dinner trade and redecorated in Asia moderne -- that kind of Chinatown-lite style that always makes me think of Pier One closeout sales. Though just shy of a year old, the place looks brand-new, looks like the shrink-wrap has just been pulled off the rich upholstery. Maybe that's because it hasn't gotten much use: On three visits, I saw only one other occupied table. Granted, I have a tendency to over-occupy any table, but Blue Ocean seems to make its nut in takeout and delivery, with a brisk trade running in and out the front door at night, leaving the dining room as untouched as a museum display of Asian Dining in the West, circa 2007.

That means there's always going to be a table available for anyone with a yen for marinated, crisp-skinned duck and mu shu pork (described on the menu as a "Chinese taco," which I just love), and the kind of attentive service that only comes at a restaurant where you are the server's sole distraction. The menu is constructed like a triptych of the major Eastern flavors, offering discrete and disparate tastes of each without ever delving too deeply into any one. The first page covers at least half a dozen culinary traditions, and the next pages continue in the same fashion -- offering the greatest hits of Asia, all in one convenient package.  

Thus, the appetizer section has Chinese egg rolls; fried Vietnamese egg rolls made of pork paste and vermicelli noodles (which were inedibly awful, burned and tasting of unnecessary parsimony); Thai spring rolls wrapped in rice paper, with shrimp, lettuce, carrots, mint and rice noodles inside; Thai chicken satay (tough and dry as dirt); Chinese beef skewers; steamed dumplings and pot stickers (both excellent); two kinds of tempura (done in a light batter that isn't exactly Japanese, but tasty nonetheless); and Indonesian-style coconut shrimp served with a coconut/ mayonnaise rémoulade. There's also miso soup (salty), wonton soup (murderously salty), Chinese hot-and-sour soup, that tom yum goong and the very good Blue Ocean "special wonton soup" with shrimp, chicken, pork, veggies and handmade wontons steeped in hot broth.

The best dishes are the most traditional, the most regionally specific; the worst are the simple ones -- the egg rolls, the satay, the nation-less lemon chicken and honey barbecued pork with stale sesame seeds.

Back in our own kitchen, Laura walked off in a huff, realizing that my relationship with the refrigerator was far too complex and acrimonious for her to get in the middle of, leaving me alone to work out the psychological and mathematical rejiggering of the shelves. I'd already dumped the large container of wonton soup from two nights ago -- it tasted like seawater and mirepoix when fresh and had not improved with age -- and replaced it with the remnants of a fantastic (and fantastically complicated) Korean spicy noodle soup that the menu had promised was a "Must Try!" I had, and was rewarded with an enormous bowl, big enough to wear as a helmet, filled to the brim with poached shrimp, chicken, pork, beef, bell peppers, broccoli, pea pods, fiendish whole red chiles and a hundred miles of noodles, all swimming in a broth of liquid fire. It was wonderful, so hot I was pouring sweat, each element perfectly cooked. I'd done as much damage as I could, then asked to have the rest packed to go.

At that same meal, Laura and I had polished off the Thai-style beef salad (excellent slivers of tender beef, sugared and stir-fried, poured over a mixed-green salad and dressed with just a few dots of Sriracha). No to-go there. Same for the salt-and-pepper shrimp of a few nights earlier -- a dry salt-and-pepper stir-fry flavored with the sweetness of green bell peppers and the heat of quartered jalapeños. Some things need to be eaten immediately. But we'd barely touched the basil combination at the restaurant, knowing it was a midnight fridge-raider's dream dish, that the fresh basil stalks sautéed alongside beef, chicken and shrimp would be even better the next day. The flavors were bold and sharp, the peppery, vaguely licorice-tasting basil and kiss of jalapeño garnish adding two distinct notes to the proteins with no sauce to get in the way of the pure, three-ingredient high.

To make room for a box of excellent Hong Kong noodles (Chinese egg noodles rolled thinner than Italian angel hair and stir-fried in a brown sauce with a hash of green onion, shrimp, chicken, beef, egg white and threads of chiffonade basil for a beautifully messy peasant dish as comforting as any puttanesca), I tossed the remains of a chicken curry done with a dry powder and hot-pepper oil. And I never should have tried to save a tempura, so I also tossed a box of battered and fried pineapple and shrimp that'd gone soggy. Reheating tofu is never a good idea, but the garlic sauce that had come over the string beans was good; now I smelled the combined flavors and threw the leftovers out.

Finally, I found room for the last of my pot stickers and closed the fridge, content in the knowledge that I was well stocked, no matter what midnight urge might strike. Laura had retreated to the bedroom. I could hear her talking on the phone -- no doubt asking some of her more normal friends what they kept in their refrigerators, marveling at the notion of cold cuts, fresh vegetables in the crisper rather than bagged country hams, wondering what else she might be able to fit in there if we restricted ourselves to no more than a dozen random beers at any one time.

While she talked, I went online and looked into what it would cost to buy a second refrigerator.


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