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Plum Pan Asian Kitchen in East Liberty rolls out a wallet-friendly menu

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 7:28 a.m.


Plum Pan Asian Kitchen occupies the space formerly -- and briefly -- occupied by Richard Chen Pan Asian Cuisine that closed in April, only eight months after its much-anticipated opening.

Chen, whose Las Vegas restaurant Wing Lei reportedly is the only Asian restaurant in the United States to be awarded a Michelin star, is no longer involved in the operation.

But six of the original partners, including Chen's wife, Cathy Chen, who owns Ya Fei Restaurant in Robinson Township, and George Lee, who created the four Sesame Inn restaurants, remain.

Lee blamed a lethal combination of the economic downturn and the restaurant's high-priced menu for the demise. Entrees now range between $9 and $19 for dinner, a substantial reduction from the previous $31 to $50 prices.

Owners have broadened the menu to make it truly pan-Asian. Dishes now span the Pacific Rim and reach into the Indian subcontinent to represent the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and India, as well as China and Japan.

The dining room has added a sushi bar that Lee believes will appeal to younger diners.

"This is a different menu with different types of food and different prices," Lee says. "A lot of young professionals want to try new stuff."

To preside over the new sushi bar, owners brought in Japan native Jimmy Watamabe, who arrived in Pittsburgh after two decades of working in restaurants in California, Portland, Texas and Las Vegas. Singapore native Yan Tan, another three-decade veteran chef, is in charge of the kitchen.

The best news is that Bill Schwerin, who came from the Pittsburgh Fish Market to serve as pastry chef for Richard Chen, continues in that capacity turning out the desserts that were one of the best things during the restaurant's previous incarnation.


"Casual, modern decor, affordable" are the three words Lee uses to describe the new restaurant.

Almost all of the attractive, upscale, minimalist decor remains. The high-ceilinged, white-walled restaurant is well lit with natural light, as well as the contemporary cylindrical lanterns in subtle shades such as kiwi and plum that dangle from the ceiling. Bare, black wooden tables are well spaced. The noise level remains low, and there's little to no carry-over of other diners' conversations.

"Our decor is the best," says Lee, who saw no reason to change what was already there. "We (had) put almost $2 million into the restaurant."

An interesting mix of older well-dressed couples and foursomes share the dining space with young, casually attired artisan types.

The casually groomed waitstaff is uniformly young, obliging and friendly. They appear knowledgeable about menu items and preparation, and are happy to share insights and recommendations.


With dinner entrees running between $9 (chicken, pork or beef lo mein) and $19 (seafood hot pot), Plum Pan Asian proves that high quality can be obtained without equally high prices.

The entrees we ordered were well-cooked, attractively presented and distinctive in taste and texture.

A platter of Walnut Chicken ($14) easily could have satisfied two hungry diners with its crisply cooked chicken pieces, a mildly sweet, pleasantly sticky sauce and a garnish of crisp-cooked broccoli florets.

The equally ample Singapore Spicy Shrimp ($16) offered a mildly spicy sauce and tender large shrimp.

Our favorite was Thai-Style Spicy Basil Stir-Fry with Beef ($15), generously garnished with sprigs of the purple, licorice-flavored basil.

Entrees come with a choice of white or brown rice.

Sides of broccoli, dry sauteed string beans and mixed Asian vegetables are available for $6 each. On their own, the mixture of steamed bok choy stems, baby corn, water chestnuts and broccoli we tried were lackluster and barely cooked. Jazzing them up with some of the mildly savory brown sauce that came in a separate bowl improved them somewhat but did little to encourage us to order them again.

Your money would be better spent on sushi, which we enjoyed immensely.

We're usually skeptical of sushi with clever names such as the Ozzy Roll or the Evil Knevil Roll . But we'll make an exception for the Marilyn Mon Roll ($12), a pretty combination of crunchy soft shell crab, cucumber, red caviar overwrapped with creamy slices of avocado. Equally attractive and very tasty is the Rainbow Roll ($11), a plump California roll with alternating colorful bands of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, white fish, shrimp and avocado.

They're big enough for sharing. Paired with a soup such as the spicy Tom Yum Goong for two ($6 with mushroom, $7 with chicken, $8 with seafood), they might make a meal for those with smaller appetites.

Whatever you choose, definitely leave some room in your wallet and appetite for dessert.

Those who dined at Richard Chen will be relieved to know that the Hazelnut Chocolate Bar ($8) never left the room. Covered in dark chocolate, the fudgey, crunchy, gooey, upscale candy bar is a decadent delight. It's served with a thin praline wafer and a tiny scoop of hazelnut ice cream.

Like the pastries, all the ice cream is made in house and worth every calorie and fat gram you consume. The White Chocolate Jasmine ($4, small) delivers a multiplicity of tastes in its cold, silky scoop. We also enjoyed the ice cream that came with the sharp and brightly flavored Lemongrass Panna Cotta ($6).

Additional Information:

Plum Pan Asian Kitchen

Cuisine: Pan-Asian

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: Lunch, $8-$10; dinner, $9-$19

Notes: Accepts all major credit cards. Sushi bar. Reservations accepted and suggested on weekends.

Location: 5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty

Details: 412-363-7586

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