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Stick-ing It 

We were irritated with the clever punsters at Asqew Grill, until we tried the kebab

Wednesday, Jul 28 2004
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I'm a sucker for a good pun. Actually, I'm a sucker for a bad pun, too. I once wrote an entire magazine article about clever imaginary pun names for coffeehouses, and to this day I can't figure out why no one has scooped up "Grounds for Divorce," "Brew-Ha-Ha," "The Bump and Grind," "Bean Counter," or "Caffiend."

And yet, for inexplicable reasons (read: envy), I found myself not amused by the folks in Clever-Clever Land who came up with Asqew Grill (1607 Haight, 701-9301; 3348 Steiner, 931-9201; www.asqewgrill.com). The name, catchy and punny though it may be, conveyed to me a certain smugness that comes from being young, beautiful, smart, successful, and dazzled by your own brilliance.

My outlook wasn't helped by the fact that the YBSSDs behind this healthy quick-but-not-fast-food minichain (a group of friends from Cornell's Hotel and Restaurant School) come armed with a World Wrapps-style marketing concept (substitute kebab skewers for tortillas) and have brought a boatload of snappy catchphrases and a twentysomething hipster vibe to their endeavor. Pierced and tattooed servers and kitchen staff wear mechanics' jumpsuits and sport Real World names like Mad Dog, Bomber, and Bucky; the menus read like an Atkins checklist ("Skewers come with your choice of starch or salad"); and the attitude is upbeat with a side of insouciance -- witness the monosyllabic "Kew" with which staffers answer the phone.

Not being a card-carrying YBSSD, I went to Asqew in the Haight with an "if you can't join 'em, bash 'em" attitude. Figured I'd sit somewhere (appropriately) on the outskirts and wolf down what I presumed would be mediocre food, while wincing uncomfortably at the overly loud soundtrack provided by a band whose members weren't even born when I was in high school.

After sifting through the mix-and-match offerings, I debated between cilantro-lime chicken with roma tomatoes and red onions and east/west barbecue pork with apples, pears, and onions. I settled on the chicken with a side of couscous (the roasted-garlic mashers were my first choice, but I acquiesced to the management's suggested pairing). For an extra $3, I treated myself to a side of grilled asparagus.

After a short but not too short wait (which usually smacks of pre-made food), a sizzling-from-the-grill skewer arrived, jammed with chunks of succulent chicken and flanked on either side by sweet red onion and plum tomatoes. Underneath, a generous bed of couscous flecked with herbs gave off a citrus/garlic aroma that jump-started my salivary glands. Moments later, a bountiful dish of asparagus bathed in garlic butter and grilled to al dente perfection showed up, and poof -- my first two expected demerits, freshness and portion size, were off the table. The dish had spent no time under a heat lamp, and for $6.50, it almost constituted a bargain. As I dug into the kebab, my next weapon of mass deduction evaporated as well: The sauce -- nearly a dressing -- wasn't bland and didn't taste bottled. The tangy blend of champagne vinegar, cilantro, garlic, shallots, and lime juice was nicely piquant, just to the point of puckering.

I fumbled desperately for something that would trip the place up. Hormones in the poultry? A secret stash of PC-verboten Chilean sea bass? Then I spied the final nail in my bitter coffin: a postscript on the menu noting that Asqew uses only free-range chicken, organic greens, and Australian grass-fed beef and lamb. I picked the chip up from the floor (the one that had fallen off my shoulder) and headed straight for Higher Grounds.

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Bonnie Wach

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