You remember your first Asian restaurant. No, come on, now — not the one with a hundred blessed dishes to choose from, each with the gooey, gloopy consistency and a Day-Glo sauce to match. The real one.
Mine was Hot Pot. I’d gone to dinner with my roommate and his girlfriend — they’ve married since — who was born in China. That night was a lot of things. For one, I discovered that merely the sight of a deep crimson chili oil gives me a case of the Christmas Eves, so to speak, that I haven’t experienced since I was a boy.
For us, it was an invitation. My friend and I were guests on this expedition into what Asian food could be. For our company, this was a celebration of complex flavor, color and texture. All of it, right there on 28th Street!
So now here I am at Ando, the latest concept to appear on Bridge Street. Ando has arrived fashionably late to the Korean food mania that chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi pioneered in the mid-aughts. But better late than never, especially here, in the neo-Netherlands; the land of an overgrown people whose greatest culinary contribution amounts to dipping fries in mayonnaise.
Ando’s creed is comfort food. With mostly Korean- and Vietnamese-inspired dishes, this is not the Asian kitchen with which most of us are familiar. Like the decor, Ando’s menu is minimalist, deftly curated to lure you into ordering something from each category.
For a Korean-inspired restaurant, the kimchi seemed like the gateway test for the rest of the menu. If you don’t have your basics down, you can’t expect to take on anything else.
It was nice. A little heat, a little funk. Like a soft Rick James number. There’s stronger kimchi out there, like sucking on chili-laced gym socks, but that’s reserved for a certain type of person, and frankly, I’m not sure I know who that looks like. This was kimchi that your mother would enjoy. You decide whether that’s a good thing or not.
The oyster shooter arrived next. A Chesapeake oyster sat tight but the taste belied the way it looked, to be sure. I’ve had cleaner looking oyster shooters that tasted far dirtier. Ando’s version was bright and crisp, like a sunny day in October. Although I’d have to toss back five or six of them in a row to tell you which characters, exactly, were singing each sweet and salty note.
Finally, the bibimbap, which is Korean for “mixed rice” — or Brooklynese for $15 fried rice. But hold on; don’t worry. Yes, this was a $15 bowl of fried rice that you technically could have made at home, but it would have cost you $100 and a field guide to track down the specialty ingredients that went into the mix; not to mention balancing the sweet, the spicy, the crunchy and the pillowy soft egg. Personally, my fried rice is always hit or miss. Besides, Ando’s thing is comfort food, and there’s not much point to that if you have to clean all the dishes.
Behind the bar, Ando has a compelling enough draft list to keep up with the rest of the Bridge Streeters, and a wine list that would turn Trader Joe green with envy. But I, who am deadly sick of reading too-long craft draft lists, was happy to see that PBR, Miller and — yes! — Sapporo all elbowed their way onto the tap lines next to mainstays like Two Hearted and Ando’s very own IPA (brewed at Unruly in Muskegon).
Oh, and here I almost forgot the best part: The restaurant also has an impressive Japanese whiskey collection. As a nation, we’ve spent a long time looking up to that Johnnie Walker Black as the pinnacle of whiskey drinking, but the French, who are the number-two whiskey consumers in the world (behind ours truly), overwhelmingly prefer Japanese whiskey.
My Suntory Toki whiskey was peppery on the nose, in the way that basil tastes, but spicy like ginger, cut briefly with a tart apple and finished with some deep simmering honeyed notes.
My plates long cleared, I sat there at the nearly empty bar with that heavy-bottomed whiskey glass. Now, this is dessert — opulence, in pale gold.
Ando Asian Kitchen + Bar
415 Bridge St. NW, Grand Rapids
Editor's Note: Ando has added sushi to the menu as well.