Unless you work in the city center, you probably don't pay much attention to a restaurant opening downtown. They're mostly lunch spots for nearby worker bees and off the radar by cocktail hour or dinner time. Parking can be problematic, and often places that focus on the sunny midday meal lack ambiance in the evening.
Into that fray comes A², pronounced A-squared, from the people who made a splash with Made in Asia on the South Side. But Main Street downtown is a far cry from Hull Street Road, and A2 clearly is trying to find its niche in a completely different scene.
The restaurant's look has the potential to merit post-lunch business. The long bar with leather stools looks sophisticated, matching the sleek banquette and black tables that fill the rest of the room. A tall, red drapery separates the dining area from the back of the house, but unfortunately the high ceilings make it a drafty place that feels cold on four visits. The music varies from overly-loud R&B to perfectly suited contemporary lounge at a volume that allows for conversation.
At lunch there's a lively crowd, no doubt some drawn in by the sign outside proclaiming: "There is a bento dog for everyone and I mean everyone! Vegan, conservative and the adventurous type!" The menu of bento dogs ($6.99 at lunch, $8.99 at dinner), some grilled and some tempura-fried, doesn't disappoint. The sea dog, a grilled dog with seaweed salad, wasabi mayo, peppered sauce, tempura crumbles and masago fish roe — unlikely as it sounds — is a sensory delight of contrasting textures and flavors. The Cali dog, a customer favorite, I'm told, comes tempura-fried with spicy mayo, eel sauce, wasabi mayo, kani, cucumber, nori flakes and masago, but it tastes like just a bit too much.
For those skittish about the Asian hot dog concept, there's the kountry dog, which is tempura chicken with peppered sauce, tonkatsu sauce and scallions. Squared fries ($1.99) come in flavors of wasabi, curry or shichimi and garlic, the latter being the standout because of the addictive but not salty seven-flavor chili pepper.
Finding something as creative and well-executed at dinner, however, is more of a challenge. Crispy spring rolls, Thai garden rolls and crab wontons ($3.99 each) are standard Chinese joint fare. Pinot frog ($6.99) — battered frog legs in a sauce of pino gris and Japanese mayo — at least offers something unique. Better is the apple shrimp salad ($8.99), a generous serving of thinly sliced Granny Smiths, chopped shrimp tossed with coconut flakes, onions, cashews and a sweet-tangy sauce.
Yaki mein noodle ($10.99), a stir-fry of fried yaki soba noodles, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and celery in lo mein sauce, is better without the tasteless beef ($2) we order. Bang bang shrimp ($13.99) is nicely fried, with large shrimp over lettuce and crispy fried rice noodles, but the abundance of spicy cream sauce that provides the heat quickly turns the shrimp from crispy to soggy. Honey chicken pairs crispy chicken with a cloying honey sauce and vegetables that seem to be unrelated to the dish as a whole. While the menu promises that carrots, celery, broccoli and baby corn will be stir fried with the chicken and sauce, they arrive on the side of the plate, barely warm and blanched, perhaps, but definitely not cooked as an integral part of the stir-fry.
As at many Asian restaurants, dessert isn't a big deal here. Two choices are given — tempura fried cheesecake and tempura-fried pound cake ($3.99). I'd have bypassed both except that A²'s Facebook page had posted that it was national pound cake day, so it seemed like the thing to do. The pound cake was filled with butter pecan ice cream, battered and tempura-fried and served with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. In other words, it's there if you have to have a sweet.
The menu colorfully touts gluten-free, vegan and healthy options on request, and servers are quick to point out how green the restaurant is, using recycled coasters, unbreakable glassware and limiting disposable products. Service definitely is a high point here with knowledgeable and personable but unintrusive staff elevating every meal. Perhaps sensing how underwhelmed we are at dinner, one shares it will soon be offering sushi, so we should come back. Another mentions the generous happy hour from 3-7 p.m., suggesting we give that a try. It isn't difficult to imagine the sleek interior as a hip gathering place off the mainstream radar.
An Asian fusion restaurant in the heart of downtown should be a dining destination and not just a default lunch spot — but until the rest of the menu lives up to the dogs, it isn't there yet. S
1112 E. Main St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner and bar: Monday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10 p.m.