East of Reason 

A bar remains a bar in different clothing.

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Sitting on the cushionless wood banquette, staring out into the predictably decorated restaurant that is The Lucky Buddha, it is hard to get past the adolescent insistence that this is a cool Asian-themed place. Look! Bamboo-wrapped columns. And over there: a giant framed gilt Buddha head. Hey! A Warhol-inspired Buddha series heading to the bathroom. Check it out: a VIP section!

Overhead, the drone of the HVAC system sucks the conversation from the room, but not the smoke from the bar.

When well-known restaurateurs expand their offerings into new culinary areas, they often do so in an effort to try something new, a new idea in food preparation, a new showcase for a chef, a new interpretation of an old concept. But after several visits to Lucky Buddha, I am at a loss to explain what is new, different, creative or even interesting about this latest restaurant revamp from the Richmond Restaurant Group.

Haven't heard of the Richmond Restaurant Group? Sure you have: The Hard Shell, Europa, The Hill Café, Michelle's at Hanover Tavern, Cha-Cha's Cantina. With the addition of The Lucky Buddha to the lineup of neighborhood kitchen, country bistro and urban chic food spots, I can ask only one thing: Why? I mean, why change it from Lucky Lounge, a bar with food, to The Lucky Buddha, a bar with food.

If there is anything that can work to redeem Lucky Buddha from the cartoonish nonsense of the outsized crispy tuna roll — a batter-fried, gooey, multitemperature concoction that turns sushi into a gut bomb — it's the not-so-humble noodle bowl. This dish is the closest thing on the menu to a creative new take on an Asian staple: noodles in broth. It isn't explained this way, but the noodle bowl here is a Westernized version of Vietnamese pho, with half the subtlety and twice the noodles.

I don't fully grasp the reason for serving tonnarelli with the barbecue pork noodle bowl ($8.95) or the swap of rice noodles for capellini with the seafood noodle bowl ($11.95). It seems as if the kitchen just forgot what they were doing, or ran out, or decided that a noodle is a noodle. It isn't explained and questions along these lines are met with blank stares, as if pho is something no one has heard of.

Still, though the potential is not fully realized, the base is strong. Chicken, sesame beef, and shrimp and pork round out the options.

The salmon cakes offer a welcome and worthwhile change from the crab-cake cliché on every other menu in the region. Less convincing is the rest of the menu, but not because of any particular flaw of ingredients or combinations of flavors — there is nothing here that has any reason to come out badly from the kitchen — but primarily because of execution and the seeming disinterest of the staff in the food they serve. This indifference is strange given the experience at some of the group's other restaurants. Let's face it: A warm and caring welcome will make up for a lot of imperfections from line cooks.

Unfortunately, in the absence of hospitality, the rock-hard crab wontons and dried-up dumplings on The Happy Family sampler platter ($12.95) are left to explain themselves, along with the peculiar temperature differentials within the tuna roll and the chocolate roulade dessert. Are they meant to be warm, cold or room temp? Perhaps all three, depending on where your fork falls.

I'd also like to know more about the Kobe beef tartare, a dish I really wanted to enjoy, but no one could tell me whether this was really Wagyu from Japan, Australia, Virginia or anywhere else. After it warmed up to room temp, it was like velvet, but at $10.95 for a tennis-ball-size serving, it seems a little inexpensive to be the real thing.

Lucky Buddha may yet bring something new to the dialogue of Asian cooking if it can decide that it wants to be intentional about this work. In a town that now has a high bar for the authentic in that category — Full Kee, Mom's Siam, Mekong, Peking and other Asian inspirations like Dd33 — Lucky Buddha has some heavy lifting ahead. Or it can remain the fourth restaurant east of the intersection of Cary and 14th streets, ready and waiting for the next convention to come to town. S

The Lucky Buddha ($$)
1421 E. Cary St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight.
Bar: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.

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