With flavors as bright as its patio garden, Bambu Pan-Asian Cuisine is an unlikely oasis in an East Medford shopping plaza.
Aptly describing their gastronomical genre as "tropical," owners Adam and Veronica Ward cultivate an equatorial esthetic for Bambu's outdoor dining room, lushly planted with its namesake hollow-stemmed grass, a rainbow of annual blossoms and culinary herbs that infuse dishes with distinctive kaffir lime, Thai basil and mint.
The 10-year-old restaurant is worlds apart from its predecessor, Medford's second Asian Grill founded by Billy Harto. Lacking the traffic for Asian Grill's casual, quick-service model, Harto charged chef Adam Ward to reinvent the menu for upscale appeal before Ward and his wife, Veronica, assumed sole ownership five years ago.
"We just reworked the whole concept," says Veronica Ward.
Drawing on years of cooking at Harto's Thai Pepper in Ashland, Adam Ward transferred the restaurant's "tiger rolls," pad Thai and Thai-style curries to Bambu and added his own take on Pacific Rim cuisine from a short stint cooking in Hawaii. The islands introduced Ward to its spectrum of fish, including opakapaka, ono, escolar and tuna, which feature into nightly specials.
Bambu earns its reputation for "high-quality fish," says Veronica Ward, with mainstays of salmon, from the Columbia River in season, and macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi. Both are the dinner menu's most expensive dishes at $17.95.
Served steamed, the salmon, says Adam Ward, is "extremely healthy" but, chimes in his wife, "full of flavor."
Always on the lookout for new flavors while traveling, the Wards cite the Orient, as well as metropolitan areas closer to home. Trips through southeast Asia inspired their eclectic menu that can guide diners on a journey through Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore — with perhaps a Honolulu or Miami stop-over — all in one meal.
"A lot of folks come down from the (Rogue Valley) Manor for lunchtime who aren't pressed," says Adam Ward.
Tempted with such a wide variety, more customers started lingering over lunch and returning in the same week for subsequent sampling. That uptick coincided over the past four years with an expansion of the afternoon menu. Where once there was a small selection of "combination plates," the lunch menu more recently replicates some of dinner service's "small plates," as well as smaller portions of some dinner entrees.
Crab cakes and baby-back ribs are popular, say the Wards. Lunch prices range from $5.95 for small plates to $9.95 for a three-item combination plate.
"All the lunch salads do really well," says Veronica Ward, who also worked for five years at Thai Pepper.
There's much more than salad in store for vegetarians, who constitute a "huge" following for Bambu, says Adam Ward. The restaurant features of number of vegetable-based dishes with protein, including tofu, available for an extra charge. A 15-percent discount on the Tuesday dinner menu's vegetarian entrees is a boon to herbivores.
Of adapting dishes to vegans, who don't eat any food derived from animals, Ward says, "we absolutely can and do all the time." One of the most common strategies is eliminating fish and oyster sauces from vegan versions of a dish. Yellow curry, sweet-and-sour tofu, cashew vegetables, pan-fried tofu, Indonesian noodles, fried rice and pad Thai all are vegan. The other coconut-milk curries, except seafood, are vegan simply after removing the featured protein.
"There's a lot of good, healthy qualities to coconut milk," says Veronica Ward, referring to the rich, dairy-free ingredient popular with vegans.
Bambu affords even more gluten-free options than vegan. Customers who must avoid the protein naturally found in wheat, rye and barley — but ubiquitously seen as a food additive — can confidently order any of the curries, the steamed or curry-basil salmon, sweet-and-sour prawns, Thai shrimp, Vietnamese green beans, tiger cries, garlic pork and any of the soups and salads, say the Wards.
The couple say they became aware of gluten-free diets six or seven years ago but last year created a "cheat sheet" of gluten-free dishes for their staff when Bambu's menu was redesigned.
The Wards also expended no small effort to redesign their patio, boasting the most desired seats since a wrought-iron fence partitioned it from the adjacent parking lot in 2007. Two years later, pergolas replaced umbrellas prone to toppling in the frequent summer breeze. With the sturdy structures providing shelter from light rain, the patio typically is open from Mother's Day through September.
The patio provides the kitchen with fresh rosemary, chives and edible flowers to offset the more exotic herbs. The Wards also dedicate their home garden to the cultivation of tomatoes for restaurant use throughout the harvest season.