A visit to Buddha: Buddha Bar offers vibrant atmosphere, lively food

Sometimes going out to dinner is just about the food. Other times it’s about the experience. At Buddha Bar, which opened in May on the edge of Chinatown, it’s about both. The extensive Asian-fusion menu has loads of mouth-watering options, but the atmosphere and service raise a diner’s visit there to a different level.

Walking through the front door and past the hostess stand, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary restaurant. The 9,400-square-foot space drips with Asian flair — from the massive and ornate chandeliers, with red lampshades and hanging tassels, to the requisite Buddha statue standing guard over the patrons. Dragon murals adorn the walls, and colorful, patterned fabrics cover the chairs, couches and throw pillows. The dim lighting evokes a bedroom-like feel. Despite all of these sensory-bombarding touches, designers somehow kept the atmosphere from feeling over the top. It’s a vibrantly decorated Asian restaurant, rather than a theme park.

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Adding to the experience, the servers, clad in all-black, seem more like ninjas, speeding around the dining room, clearing plates and refilling drinks on the fly. Were it not for their uniforms’ red logos, diners might not even notice them, owing to their stealth moves and professional service.

Another service surprise: the purse stool. After the hostess led the way to our dining spot, I plopped my purse down on the floor under the table, like normal. But a staff member quickly provided a foldable stool for the purse. It had its seat at the table, too.

Judging by the parties of carefully dressed women celebrating birthdays or upcoming marriages and other groups enjoying the space, this is no doubt a see-and-be-seen place. The constant reminders of the restaurant’s dress code seem to have paid off. Buddha Bar means business when it comes to keeping up a certain appearance.

And yet there’s one more element to add to the sensory overload — the sounds coming from the DJ booth, which sits high on one of the dining room’s walls. The DJ supplied a steady stream of bass underneath Indian music and other international selections. It was loud enough to make its presence known but not so obtrusive that diners had to scream to their companions. The restaurant prides itself on its in-house music, with more than a dozen CDs available.

Washington’s Buddha Bar is the latest to join Raymond Visan’s empire, with restaurants in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, Jakarta, Sao Paulo, London and the original in Paris, which opened in 1996.

The Asian-fusion menu draws from Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai influences and flavors. The staff is said to have trained in Buddha Bar’s original location to learn the restaurant’s signature tastes and techniques.

Chef Gregg Fortunato’s fare does not disappoint, and when eaten in such surroundings, it is hard to tell whether the food complements the space or vice versa. On its own, there might be better food options throughout the city — but nothing served in a setting like this.

The King Crab summer roll, a cold appetizer, has a cool, salty taste, with the crab as the star and the basil stuffed inside the fragile wrapper an able supporting ingredient. The accompanying cilantro-doused mixed greens add an earthy tone to the dish.

The rock shrimp tempura, which comes as a hot appetizer, is not to be missed. The square bowl arrives with small, crunchy pieces of fried shrimp in a spicy sauce. The shrimp are light on the grease, thankfully, and the sauce has just enough kick to add taste but falls short of a five-alarm prompt for the water glass. 

The salt-and-pepper calamari mixes the traditional squid rings with small, whole squid. The jalapeño slices add a nice spice to the simple batter.

For sushi, the Buddha Roll combines salmon, spicy tuna, yellow tail and snow crab in a thin cucumber wrap. It is cool and satisfying, but the wide variety of seafood that turns up in one bite makes it difficult to distinguish tastes. Meanwhile, the Mass Roll comes with a tempura prawn and avocado pieces layered with thinly sliced spicy tuna. For the finishing touch, it’s sprinkled with crunchy gyoza. In the battle between the two, the Mass Roll wins out.

There would be nothing wrong with stopping at appetizers, cocktails and sushi, but reading the entrée list is one way to be certain that won’t happen.

The roasted black cod with miso and yuzu sauce arrives perfectly cooked, and the sauce does not overpower the fish. The lamb curry comes in a portion traditional of Indian food (that is to say: large). Two big bowls come with the dish, one with a mound of basmati rice, the other with a flavorful but not-too-spicy curry featuring chunks of lamb.

The winner of the table, though, is the filet mignon “teppan yaki style.” The meat arrives sizzling on a scorching hot stone with wasabi-infused butter. The meat comes slightly under cooked to order, but the stone continues to cook the meat through the meal, making each bite different from the one before. The accompanying fingerling potatoes can be put on the stone for an added sear; they can serve as a different vehicle for soaking up more of the spicy butter.

As for dessert, a lemon tart with a raspberry garnish is thick with lemon curd and has a flaky but dense shell. A chocolate cake with a liquid center and vanilla ice cream is tasty but seems out of place at an Asian restaurant.

It’s hard to leave Buddha Bar disappointed. It’s a feast for all senses in the truest definition.