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Aikou Moves Chinese Dining Upscale

New restaurant in Warren is a treat for fans of Asian cuisine.

You could stand on a corner and look around until a restaurant sign draws you in. But we've got a better idea. Each week, Patch picks a great restaurant either in town or nearby that is worth checking out. Here's this week's choice:

Aikou Asian Cuisine

Overview: Thanks to an early introduction to Chinese cuisine, I've long had a fondness for Asian restaurants. Now that Chinese restuarants are nearly ubitquitous, I'm thankful to see a growing trend of restuarants making the experience a bit more...upscale.

Montgomery's Ya-Ya Noodles may have been a Somerset County innovator in this regard, but Aikou's first Somerset County location (there are locations in Flemington and , as well) will challenge Ya-Ya's claim as the county's best.

To be sure, there are two approaches at work, and while Aikou's menu is not as varied or original as Ya-Ya Noodles', the meals served up at Aikou are culinary masterpieces. Think the savory complexity of fine French cuisine—in the Gen. Tso's sauce.

Decor: Aikou's Warren location is a state-of-the-art Asian restaurant, with a playful mix of textures and colors. The lighting is soft, except for the large wall of north-facing doors that appeared to open to a possible patio, with fabric-covered pendant lights hanging from a tray ceiling.

The entrance is dominated by a large statue, and a white stone wall; inside the dining area, there's a sushi bar, seating for a large crowd, and a long wall decorated in two sections: one, a stone mosaic, and one a mix of small tree trunks and dark paneling.

Drinks: Normally, one wouldn't think of commenting on the tea served at a Chinese restuarant, where it's often apparently an afterthought, but Aikou clearly brews their own tea. It, too, had a wonderful complexity of flavors that was noticeable—an initial green tea bite, followed by a slightly smoking aftertaste, with a lingering hint of rice that made us think of sushi!

Entrees: A look at Aikou's menus reveals a lot of familiar dishes, as well as some originals. We stuck to the familiar, figuring if it doesn't stand out, then the others wouldn't, either, and ordered Gen. Tso's Chicken ($14), Asian vegetables with brown sauce and chicken ($13), a tempura appetizer ($7) and a salmon roll ($5).

The salmon roll came first (we ordered the tempura later), and it was of a nice size, with a solid serving of salmon inside. There's not much to go wrong in such a simple roll, but the salmon was flavorful and balanced with the rice.

The brown sauce on the vegetables and chicken was full bodied and flavorful, without being too heavy or rich, as some restuarant's sauces are. The best part of many Chinese dishes (in my opinion) is the generous portions of vegetables, and Aikou knew how to please me, with a near 50-50 split of vegetables and chicken. 

The tempura was a treat—the appetizer included two shrimp, a slice of sweet potato, a broccoli floret and a slice of pumpkin fried in that amazing tempura batter. It was very light in flavor, without any oily aftertaste, and very satisfying.

Then there's the Gen. Tso's...it may be the most popular item on a Chinese restaurant's menu for most people and it's yours, then you'll definitely want to go to Aikou and forget about the others. The sauce was sweet without being cloy, with just the right touch of pepper and seasoning. It's been a long time since I found such a good sauce...

When I go back, I may try the teriyaki, or Thai Basil with chicken, or the Malaysian red curry with vegetable...but first I'll have to pass on the Gen. Tso's, which may not be easy. Or I could get the panko crusted tuna roll...the choices will keep me coming back for a while. 

It should be noted that Aikou is a step up in pricing, as well. Where many area restaurants offer lunch specials for $6 to $7, most are $10 on Aikou's menu, but given the quality difference, we think many will be fine with that.

Service: We enjoyed excellent service, although we went at an off-peak time. I suspect that doesn't change when the restaurant is busier.

9 Mt. Bethel Road, Warren

 908-834-8278

www.aikouasiancuisine.com

Price: $$

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