Innovation is Stephen Starr’s hallmark and Pod pushes his stylistic boundaries into a brave new world. Pod, Starr’s futuristic Asian-fusion restaurant in University City, not only serves inventive food, but strives to create a total sensory experience for its diners. In addition to the 90-seat main dining area that stretches the length of the room, there are two unique types of seating available from which the restaurant derives its name. Lining the outside wall are small “pods,” similar to booths, which provide couples with an intimate space for dining. There are also three larger “pods,” accommodating groups of six to twelve people, which allow guests to set their own dining mood by choosing different colors of light to illuminate their private space.
Pod also offers two distinct alternatives to table dining, a large bar-lounge area and a sushi bar. At the bar, guests can imbibe in a kaleidoscopic series of cocktails, or “Liquid Remedies,” named after the glowing lights cast throughout the restaurant such as Pink, Blue, Purple, and Orange. A wide range of sake, wine, and bottled and draft beers are also available. With drink in hand, guests may choose to sit on one of the white stools that line the bar or overflow onto the red, sofa-like foam sculpture that comprises the lounge area. Journeying further into Pod’s futuristic interior, one encounters the sushi bar where Sushi Chef Hiroyuki Tanaka delivers fresh sushi plates that are continually replenished on a revolving conveyor belt. Diners then have the luxury of freely choosing from the dizzying array of sushi, sashimi, and custom-made rolls as they pass in front of their hovering chopsticks. Mounted on the wall behind the bar, a flat screen TV provides entertainment in the form of retro cartoon classics like the cult favorite, Speed Racer.
Walking in off the street, it takes a moment to acclimate oneself to the chic, modern surroundings of Pod. The restaurant’s interior is a feast for the senses and as the host promptly led my dining companion and I to our table in the main dining room, our heads were turning back and forth trying to take in as much as we could along the way. Luckily, our table at the far end of the room provided the perfect perspective from which to drink in all of Pod’s contemporary details. But with the arrival of our waiter, Sarah, our attention was immediately diverted from Pod’s atmospheric allure to the even more enticing menu options offered up by Executive Chef Michael Schulson.
Sarah informed us that everything at Pod is served family style to encourage sharing. In this spirit, we started off with the Sushi Small combination platter which features seven individual pieces of nigiri sushi, a tuna roll, and an eel-avocado roll. To accompany this dish, I chose a clean, crisp Sapporo beer. My dining companion couldn’t resist ordering a “Blue,” a mix of Smirnoff Citron, blue Curacao, and a splash of fresh lemonade, which she spotted a fellow diner enjoying on our walk through the dining room. Our sushi and drinks arrived in unison. We immediately combined a splash of soy sauce with a dollop of bright green wasabi, whisked it together with chopsticks, and eagerly commenced our meal. The firm, achingly fresh, sweet flesh of the fish was invigorating. The platter’s standout proved to be the mildly smoky and buttery fantail, followed in close succession by the eel avocado roll. The lightly barbequed, sweet eel and rich avocado proved to an alliance of satisfyingly sublime flavors.
We staggered our orders throughout the night, as Sarah had informed us that the dishes came out from the kitchen as they were ready. After we finished the last of the sushi we moved on to the tempting selections of dim sum. We decided on the Malaysian Seared Scallops with a coconut curry sauce and the Kobe Beef served with ponzu and wasabi and cooked table side on Japanese river rocks.
The first to arrive was the Kobe Beef, accompanied by Mark, who came to cook the beef, and his red-hot river rock. After asking how we wanted the beef cooked, Mark set to work on the first of three thin, well-marbled medallions of the coveted Kobe. He explained that the rocks are capable of reaching a very high temperature, but do not retain their heat very well so he lost no time in swiftly kissing every surface of the beef to the rock until each medallion had reached our request of medium rare. The beef was rich in flavor and so tender that it almost melted in our mouths. The accompanying ponzu sauce (a mild, less salty version of soy sauce) complemented the beef without masking any of the meat’s luscious taste.
The Malaysian Seared Scallops with coconut curry sauce arrived in turn and provided a succulent conclusion to our dim sum course. The plump, glistening scallops were seared to a golden brown, matching their bed of coconut curry sauce and crispy fried noodles. The coconut milk added a deliciously creamy sweetness while the curry gave it a spicy kick. The bed of crispy fried noodles provided the ideal textural contrast to the supple flesh of the fresh scallops.
Continuing our way down the extensive menu, my dining companion and I moved on to the main plates. Sarah recommended the Szechwan Lamb Chops with Shanghai noodles and sesame dressing, to which we readily assented, and added the Golden Crispy Pork Tenderloin with caramelized onion, potatoes, and Thai tomato salad to our order. We also agreed upon a carafe of Otokoyama sake to share, which also came highly recommended by Sarah. Sarah returned momentarily with our sake and waited while we had our first sip to ensure we were pleased with the selection. The dry, full-bodied sake, offering a hint of banana on the palate and a pleasing touch of heat to the finish, was declared a success and kept our taste buds happy until the arrival of our main plates.
The generously portioned Golden Crispy Pork Tenderloin was pounded flat, breaded, and fried before being sandwiched between a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes and a vibrant Thai tomato salad. With this dish, Chef Michael Schulson once again proved to be a master of contrasting textures and flavors: the chicken’s crunchy casing giving way to the whipped potatoes and punctuated by sudden wet bursts of bright cherry tomatoes.
The Szechwan Lamb Chops were the most rustic dish of the evening. The long, thin rib bones of the chops formed a tepee under which the gently grilled lamb rested on soft Shanghai noodles and shitake mushrooms. The shitake’s earthy flavor paired perfectly with the lamb’s lightly charred exterior, while the dressing provided a sweet glaze to the soft noodles.
We finished our meal with the Chef’s selection of sorbet. The dish’s presentation was a work of art. Like a glowing sculpture, a ball each of lychee, mandarin, blueberry, and strawberry sorbet sat atop a molded circular cradle of neon blue ice, garnished with a sprig of Thai basil. It was almost too good-looking to eat, but who were we trying to kid? The sorbet proved to be a perfect coda to our meal, leaving us feeling fresh and cool, totally in tune with Pod’s surroundings.
A satisfying meal is a happy confluence of ingredients coming together to create a harmonious feast that succeeds in pleasing all the senses. And all these ingredients don’t need to be edible in order to play an important role. The ambience surrounding a meal can be as important as the food itself. The importance of creating a total dining experience is not lost on Stephen Starr; indeed, this is where he shines and Pod is no exception. Not only does Pod expertly fuse disparate Asian and Western culinary influences to perfection, it allows the exciting future of dining to be realized in the present-day.