Bambú is the 200-plus seat Asian restaurant on the T & T Supermarket campus deep in Ottawa South. Housed in one of the hangar-like buildings that surrounds the giant Asian grocery store, and affiliated with the Yangtze restaurant in Chinatown. Bambú is a modern, industrial space of glass and light, done up in earthy shades of brown, beige and rust, filled in with tile and granite, cultured stone and lengths of bamboo. Behind a wall of wine is a bar/lounge area. Across from it, is a curtained-off private dining room. For now, there’s a small sushi prep station, though plans are apparently in the works for a proper sushi bar with counter seating. Bambú will also double in size for summer when a 250-seat patio is unveiled.
Like most great big spaces it works best when filled. On Sunday for dim sum, Bambú bustled. A mid-week lunch was perhaps one-eighth occupied and when near empty, as it was for a recent dinner, the room echoed awkwardly.
Navigating its enormous menu can feel a bit paralyzing. Organized mostly, and disappointingly, by protein, it’s also tricky to read as the pale orange prices fade into the black page, and sometimes disappear altogether into the binding.
There’s dim sum on page 2, and an extensive sushi section toward the back. If I were to return, I’d start and end with these. When the maki creation of the house (the Bambú roll) combines salmon with cream cheese and fake crab (deep-fried), I hear warning bells, but the bit of nigiri and sashimi I’ve sampled has been good enough. And though the menu sticks with the most common Cantonese dim sum treats (shrimp and pork dumplings, steamed buns, potstickers, steamed and fried squid, stuffed eggplant, spare ribs…) we’ve liked what we’ve tried.
The balance of the menu is pretty much bestsellers of westernized Thai, Chinese and Japanese dishes plated with squares of molded rice on trendy plates, but tasting about as exotic as the stuff in the fast-food take-away aisles of the suburban food court, propped up with MSG. The hot and sour soup was sludgy and cloying; spring rolls were tasteless tubes of goo, truly about the worst I’ve had. A mango salad was typical of an airport lounge pickup (flavourless mesclun mix, rock hard fingers of mango, soggy roasted cashews united in an icky sweet Memories of something or other dressing). I had to remove delicately from my mouth some of the steamed meat in the beef with XO sauce. The shrimp were watery. The chicken in the Thai curry rubbery, while the curry itself was a dreary version of that familiar dish, its usual drama absent. The Asian eggplant stuffed with shrimp and pork was brought down by its insipid black bean sauce. Noodle dishes had little finesse or interest. Indeed, the dominant flavour in most everything we tried was salt and garlic. The sauces all tasted pedestrian and, I suspect, straight from the bottle. Desserts were artificial tasting too-sweet confections straight from the box.
My mistake was expecting big things in this big new place. I thought Bambú, given its location next to the exotic aisles, the tanks of swimmers and lolling crabs of its T & T neighbour, would offer fresh, more authentic, more regional Chinese food, not this assembled, pedestrian stuff. I guess I had my fingers crossed too tightly.
Bambú may promise to take our palates on “a journey along the lush banks of the Mekong River, through the Gobi desert to the height of Mount Fuji,” but my meals here took me from Ottawa centre to Ottawa South.