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Sesame Asian Kitchen

The local restaurant scene seemed to suffer a drought during the first six months of this year. So the debut of Sesame Asian Kitchen at the former site of Lithia Stationers hovered on the horizon like much-needed rain clouds.

The spot directly across from Lithia Park is bound to do a brisk business on the basis of location alone. Founders Lisa and Thomas Beam own Pasta Piatti, co-own Tabu and clearly know how to attract customers in Ashland's competitive dining scene.

Their savvy is obvious in Sesame's Zen-like interior of paper and bronze lanterns, bamboo chairs and geometric tiles juxtaposed with steel ceiling ducts. While not intimate, the effect is inviting. Perhaps more appealing during the summer months is Sesame's ample patio space on Ashland Creek.

The menu is likewise approachable, dabbling in a variety of Asian-inspired dishes without replicating those at nearby Japanese or Thai eateries. Prices are in the $5 to $14 range, with the same line-up served for lunch and dinner.

Sesame wasn't yet too popular to keep my friend and I waiting on a Friday evening. We slipped easily into an umbrellaed outdoor table and both ordered a lemongrass cooler ($3.75). Tasting of ginger, lemon syrup and soda water, the drinks are nonalcoholic, but Sesame does boast a considerable cocktail menu.

Always enticed by appetizers, I couldn't resist duck potstickers ($6.95) and the "dynamite cakes" ($8.25), a marriage of scallops and lobster meat served with a citrus-infused sambal olek sauce. No doubt needing something cooler after spicy appetizers, we also ordered a salad of ahi tuna atop peanut-sauced soba noodles ($9.50).

My friend, a chef, had just been poking fun at her colleagues' too-frequent reliance on scallops, shrimp and lobster to please diners' palates, but we both swallowed any unflattering remarks with the first bite of seafood cakes. Crispy on the outside with a mousse-like texture on the inside, each cake contained several chunks of lobster. Although the sambal olek wasn't homemade, the server said, the restaurant clearly put its mark on the Indonesian condiment with the refreshing addition of orange.

The duck's richness added distinction to the potstickers, which were softer than typical restaurant interpretations, most often frozen and resurrected in the deep-fryer. Unfortunately, intriguing flavors didn't extend beyond the appetizers.

The tuna was regrettably overcooked, retaining just a hint of pink in the middle as opposed to the rarer meat we expected. We couldn't detect any peanut taste in the noodles' sauce, and the entire preparation was served atop a mix of greens so pale I suspected they came from a bag.

Our enthusiasm still high enough for dessert, my friend and I ordered a mochi ice cream trio, coconut rice pudding (each $5.95) and a pot of oolong tea ($2.50). With floral notes in the ice cream, the mochi was better than average versions of this frozen dessert I've tried from a box. But the pudding, which we both were keen to enjoy, fell short on texture with grains of rice so crunchy we didn't finish the generous serving.

Sesame's shortcomings, I thought, likely arose from just a moment's inattention in the kitchen, inadequate prep time and possibly a shortage of the usual ingredients. Betting that a repeat was unlikely, I yearned to give the place a fair shake and invited another friend and co-worker for lunch.

Again, Sesame's appetizers stole the show, even converting my friend, a calamari newbie, to the tiny squid so often resembling rubber bands if overcooked. The tempura-like coating benefitted from toasted coconut flakes, a chiffonade of mint and sprinkling of black sesame seeds. And for $7.95, the portion was much larger than at many restaurants.

Also on the large side for entrees, Sesame's noodle bowls are served in dramatically angled dishes that practically promise equally impressive contents. Yet we found flavors lacking in both broths, miso around the udon ($8.95) and green tea for the salmon with soba noodles ($13.95). Additions of pickled ginger and seaweed didn't improve either entree.

I did take heart, however, that the neighboring table's servings of seared tuna did not appear overcooked. And a couple sitting near the door seemed to enjoy a stir-fried eggplant dish with tofu and brown rice. Subsequent visits, I vowed, would be heavy on the appetizers and drinks with Lithia Park as the perfect backdrop.

— Sarah Lemon