The newest addition to the many mid-range restaurants popping up in Fountain Square - or at least the newest to me - is Naisa Pan-Asian Cafe. My family gathered there to celebrate a birthday recently, and Naisa served us well, accommodating meat-eaters and -abstainers alike.
Address - 1025 Virginia Avenue, Indianapolis Phone - 317-602-3708
Hours - Monday to Thursday - 11am - 3pm & 4pm - 9:30pm
Friday to Saturday - 11 am - 3pm & 4pm -10pm
Dinner entree cost - $8 - $13
To begin our meal, our server brought out little bowls of fried crispy wonton skins, paired with house-made duck and mustard sauces. Both sauces are a great deal more special than packet-bound and jar-sourced accompaniments that most restaurants serve. The mustard is zingy without being bitter, while the duck sauce was far less sacchrine and more fruity than any other duck sauce I've had. From the variety of appetizers - veggie spring rolls, shrimp tempura, seafood cheese wontons and steamed vegetable dumplings - the dumplings were the clear stand-out, with shredded vegetables encased with a spinach wrapper.
Though we could have made a meal with the ample "small plate" appetizers, we excitedly ordered a variety of entrees from Naisa's menu, which is composed primarily of Chinese dishes. At the non-meat end of the table, we ordered three dishes to share - the garlicky triple greens, ma po to fu and stir fried rice noodles. I'm not certain that I would have enjoyed any of them quite so much in isolation as I did side-by-side. They were each delicious, but felt like a whole meal when they filled a plate together. One other diner had the chicken rice noodles and, while the flavor was good, he found them a bit oily. The triple greens are particularly good, and the greens vary depending on what ingredients are freshest. Naisa distinguishes itself from many other mid-price restaurants with a focus on freshness and flavor; cilantro and basil leaves, as well as hints of acidity and a measured approach to frying, make their dishes bright and surprising.
Naisa offers tea service, presented in an iron pot at the table, which I recommend. We were all much too full for any dessert.
Naisa's simple surroundings, carefully selected and calming, allow the food to be the center of diners' experience. For the most part, the interior and mood of Naisa is that of a focused cafe - plenty of space for quiet chatter and no overly ornate or gaudy surroundings to distract diners from enjoying the two most important things at any meal - the food and the company. One little caveat - the table we sat at, which was actually two tables pulled together, felt a bit too large for a six-person party. I waved to my mom, seated at the far end of the table, but didn't get to talk much.
The service was fine, but not extraordinary. Reading others' accounts of their trips to Naisa, I'm a bit sad that our server seemed disinterested in both our experience and the full menu, because others seem to have had wonderful, attentive service. Nothing was terribly wrong, our experience just wasn't warm and welcoming. I'm not sure how to capture my issue with it - a lack of eye contact, a coolness toward certain people in the party, a general spaciness, but one thing unequivocally bothered me... Maybe this is a special peeve of mine, but I hate being in a large party and having the server affirm one person's order, but not the rest. And, in the course of the evening, our server reminded me of this special irritation, telling my stepdad that he ordered the "best thing on the menu" while not even giving an approving nod after others' orders.
Mostly-apathetic hipster server aside, I will definitely be eating at Naisa again. Even if the rest of the food had not been delicious and fresh - which is was - those veggie dumplings are an undeniable draw. The food has soul and freshness, both of which matter mightily to me.