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Ya Fei's Asian cuisine ranks among area's finest

Friday, September 06, 2002

By Sarah Billingsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

From start to finish, Ya Fei works a subtle magic, with a startling, creative Pacific Rim menu and unfailing Chinese favorites, silent service and a dim, comfortable dining room.

Owner Kathy Yee has persevered and turned a meal at Ya Fei into an experience. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

The restaurant's appeal is considerable, despite its location in a sprawling strip mall, with storefront to match: vast parking lot, a tinted window bright with neon offering takeout and Asian beer, the sidewalk sign with "Ya Fei" in lettering identical to that on the sign of every other store in the complex.

This appearance is deceiving: Ya Fei is much, much better than the average strip mall Chinese. It ranks among the Pittsburgh area's best Asian restaurants.

Once inside, the restaurant is cool and serene, decorated in soothing shades of mauve and teal. At the tables, draped in white, conversation is at a low murmur, and a terrarium against the ceiling of the front dining room gives the freshening effect of a greenhouse.

You wouldn't guess from the gentle ambience and gracious hum that tumult and tragedy happened here more than two years ago. There will always be a sad chapter in the history of Ya Fei, one of the sites of serial killer Richard Baumhammers' violence.

In the aftermath, as she provided a voice for Pittsburgh's Asian community, coped with psychological trauma and her business slowed to barely a trickle, owner Kathy Yee almost closed her doors.

But she persevered, and Pittsburgh Magazine crowned her restaurateur of the year for this year, for her commitment to excellence and activism in the Pittsburgh restaurant community. Ya Fei rebounded, and is back to providing what every good restaurant should: exoticism, sustenance elevated to an event, an experience that relaxes and takes you out of your ordinary day.

Yee's Chinese menu travels the whole of her native China, with Sichuan shrimp, Cantonese Moo Goo Gai Pan and Beijing Duck, as well as Americanized offerings: fried rice, lo mein and chow mein. There is a long list of sushi, sashimi, maki and temaki, as well as Ya Fei's intriguing 18-item Pacific Rim menu.

The Pacific Rim menu is Yee's concept of fusion cuisine -- a popular concept that melds flavors and techniques of one culture to those of another. Before and since opening in 1989, Yee traveled Asia and the United States, eating, learning, paying special attention to California cuisine and pairings of wine and food. From these travels sprang the Pacific Rim menu.

At Ya Fei, American cuts of meat and preparations like barbecued chicken meet the cuisines of countries bordering the Pacific Ocean -- Japan, Vietnam, China -- resulting in entrees like Spicy Shredded Pork with Jalapenos and Five-Spice Bean Curd ($12.95), a dish that combines Asian stir-fry technique, spices and tofu with Southwestern-style shredded pork and jalapenos.

Items from the Pacific Rim menu have assertive, intriguing flavors. Squid with Spicy Black Bean Salsa ($12.95) had a marvelous sneaky heat to it. Tubes of squid were elegantly crosshatched to hold the dark, frisky sauce and cooked to a texture that was perfect, unchewy -- with a firmness and give like al dente pasta. The squid, combined with thumb-sized fresh straw mushrooms that trapped woodsy Chinese dried beans under their lids, made a playful, tasty dish.

Heads turned all over the restaurant when the beautifully caramelized Teh Pan Salmon ($17.95) was brought out, still sizzling and spitting on its platter, crisp baby corn, snow peas and water chestnuts dancing on the hot iron. The exciting presentation cradled a simple preparation of moist, tender fish sauced with teriyaki.

Tempting, unusual Walnut Puffed Shrimp ($15.95) missed its mark ever so slightly. Large shrimp were coated with an airy batter, fried until puffed and crisped, but drenched in an unremarkable brown sauce -- though the lively texture and taste of sauteed sweet peppers, snow peas and candied walnuts made up for the sauce's sluggishness.

Ya Fei's unique fare is not restricted to the Pacific Rim menu. Read the extensive menu closely; there are many surprises, such as the strawberry duck ($14.95), a treatment also given to chicken ($12.95). The duck itself was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, its gaminess a perfect foil for strong, hot sauteed strawberries, tasting of fruit, sun and the hottest day in June. The dish was flawed only in its sauce, which was overly thickened with cornstarch and bright red, like Jell-O.

We sampled several sushi items and found them remarkably good for a restaurant that doesn't specialize in sushi. A special roll of fried eel, crab and tofu ($5.25), deliciously tangy and rich, was terrific. The sushi and maki sampler platter ($16.95) -- which included yellowtail (hamachi), salmon (sake), tuna (maguro), shrimp (ebi), flounder (hirame) and a California roll -- was very good as well, for although the rice was a little warm and not quite sticky enough, the quality of the seafood -- as in all seafood I sampled at Ya Fei -- was excellent.

There are so many appetizers to choose from, most notably the calamari fritte ($4.95), with its deliciously light batter and seductive hint of five-spice powder, and the onion cake ($2.95), thick with scallions and served with a sweet soy sauce.

Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to sample dessert at Ya Fei, as the otherwise solicitous, organized and effortless service bumbled and served us the check before we could order it -- twice. Either a ginger sorbet glazed with Canton ginger liqueur ($5.95) or a honey glazed apple or banana ($4.50) sound like a lovely and delicate way to end a future visit.

Ya Fei has good, reasonable wines by the glass, such as a Jekel Riesling ($4.50), a calming accompaniment to the spicy squid, and Asian beers, notably Kirin ($4), a soft, yeasty brew. The broad menu has a dish to match any palate, as well as heart-friendly steamed items and a variety of vegetarian entrees.

Although a space in the hive that is Robinson Town Centre is a decidedly unglamorous venue for the seductive, well-prepared food of Ya Fei, it's wonderful that this location exposes so many to Kathy Yee's creations. The rise of the area as a major entertainment/shopping destination certainly contributes to the revitalization of Ya Fei; most responsible for well-deserved success is the quality of the product and the spark and personality of Kathy Yee.

Ya Fei
1980 Park Manor Road
Robinson Town Centre

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

The basics: Pacific Rim cuisine, sushi and Chinese. Smoking and non-smoking seating in separate rooms; wheelchair accessible; all major credit cards; takeout available.

Star System:

The last word:

Sarah Billingsley can be reached at sbillingsley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1661.

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