Sushi rolls: $4-$18
Entrées, noodle and rice dishes: $12.95-$29.95
Scallop sashimi, Massaman curry, salmon-avocado kyuri maki
The scallop shell shimmered when it arrived, the smooth grooves on its concave surface reflecting colors of the spectrum. Thin lime slices fanned over it and cradled slivers of raw scallop, still carrying a sweet ocean scent. One by one the pieces puckered slightly after a dip in soy-citrus sauce, revealing their utmost freshness and delicateness. The shell, balancing atop a fat, green banana leaf, was soon empty again.
Inside Padi, a Pan-Asian addition to Hockessin’s Lantana Square, freshness was afoot. The sort of food so fresh it not only awakens the taste buds, but stands them at attention.
At the best of times during several visits, Padi delivered stunning raw dishes in a swank atmosphere—all bedecked with black woods and gold colored booths. Glowing lights pulsed and faded from the sushi bar’s underbelly, and a vibrant happy hour and late-night crowd clocked in loyally for lemongrass martinis and Asahi. On cue, a flash of flame burst from sushi chef Jon Muliadi’s blowtorch as he incinerated a layer of bubbling salmon draped across a sushi roll.
Named after the Malay spelling of rice paddy, Padi is the second restaurant in Eve Teoh’s collection, succeeding the superb Rasa Sayang in Independence Mall. Much like Rasa—which churns some of the briskest lunch business around, having won the patronage of nearby AstraZeneca and Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children—Padi can provide exhilarating highs.
Padi oozed promise from its tasteful opening volley: an amuse-bouche of buri toro (the fatty and satiny-tender belly of yellowtail carpaccio) dressed simply with wasabi, olive oil and specks of micro green. The fish resisted like soft butter, screaming its freshness and rich oceany flavor.
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A theme of simple and bright-tasting dishes soon emerged from the small starter menu. Tom Yum soup, its broth punctuated by lemongrass, ginger and chiles, hit the hot-sweet-sour flavor targets Thai food aspires to, while bobbing mushrooms remained miraculously crisp. Salmon-avocado kyuri maki was another prolific study in texture as creamy avocado sticks coalesced with soft salmon under a sheath of crispy rolled cucumber. A light but pungent drizzle of ponzu sauce furnished the rolls with salt while toasted sesame seeds added a surprising wallop of nutty flavor.
Muliadi’s sushi combo—10 pieces (for $23.95) of assorted, unadorned nigiri—proved an irresistible litmus test. Slices of yellowtail, white tuna, eel and salmon swathed firmly over rice and then disappeared quickly.
But Padi’s kitchen also proved capable of some quizzical and forgettable lows, its overlarge menu occasionally lacking in grace. A humongous serving of crab- and Panang curry-stuffed shrimp seemed almost stodgy in comparison to those alluringly unfussy starters. Turgid and brown, the shrimp weren’t much for presentation, and they resembled the sort of dish readily available at every tourist-trap fish house in Sea Isle. An overly sweet and pallid tangle of pad Thai moped in its compartment of a Thai-themed bento box one afternoon. Its costar, an otherwise tasty ground pork-and-mushroom fried dumpling, was greasy. (Though I was told the chef was given the day off after working a charity event the previous evening.)
That excuse couldn’t be made for a chewy sampling of Yakatori, which bordered on miserable. A $20 catchall (sticks can be ordered a la cart for $2 each) included chewy chicken gizzards, boiled quail eggs wrapped in undercooked bacon, lifeless and cold calamari, mini sausage bits a la Johnsonville, plus beef balls and fish balls of unknown origins. Bitter, burnt grill taste choked nearly every skewer. Everything was splattered with the same tare sauce.
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The times I ventured into specialty sushi roll territory I was overcome with ingredients and gobsmacked with sauces. One special one night was the Dirty Pop roll, an eye-rolling tribute to a bygone ’N Sync tune. Appropriately, Dirty Pop matched the boy band era in useless showiness with a mouth-cramming combo of snow crab, cucumber, asparagus, avocado, torched salmon, eel sauce and tobbiko. On the subsequent Cobra roll, I truly enjoyed the interplay between lobster salad and creamy avocado. I couldn’t help wondering: Why deep-fry it? And why top each and every slice needlessly with more tempura flakes that invariably slid from their neat piles and onto my pants? And why streak everything with two thick swashes of sauces? There was a good dish somewhere in here; it was just wearing more makeup than Christina Aguilera.
Just when I began wishing Padi would go back to coloring inside the lines, out came reminders of its admirable creative spirit. Certainly not every attempt at fusion went awry. A Thai chicken “doughnut” was a fun send-up, especially when dunked (as with any doughnut) into one of two dynamite dipping sauces: a creamy chile aioli, a sort of a sweet-and-sour Asian pico de gallo. And not every foray into Pan-Asian stapledom ended like the Yakatori. Hearty Massaman curry, the southern Thai dish, soothed my temperament on a rainy night. Red curry-lacquered chicken chunks joined a tasty blend of coconut milk, potatoes, roasted peanuts and veggies, with shrimp paste notes that played seamlessly in the background.
So despite a few headscratchers, there was much to love about Padi. Not the least of which was the ultra-friendly and most hospitable staff, led by the radiant owner Teoh and manager Patrick Wang. They both patrolled dinner services excitedly, regaling regulars and making new friends.
With a few thoughtful edits to the menu, Padi’s social circle will only grow.