Running a restaurant is hard work. The product is perishable, the work force often uneven, the customers unpredictable. The owners can only hope that their chosen concept, menu, and decor fit the public’s current mood and that their restaurant’s location proves advantageous rather than detrimental. So why would anyone bother? Because when everything works–when the food comes out beautifully and swiftly, the staff performs graciously and in sync, the customers flow in and out in smooth waves, pleased and contented–no occupation is more gratifying or creative, the rush of adrenalin giving way to a satisfied glow. Finding the sweet spot where all the elements come together is the key, and some new restaurants hit it immediately while others have to work toward it. Passport, a new restaurant on the south edge of town, is still finding its way.

Passport is on South State, near Briarwood Mall but on the far side of I-94, with awkward access and inadequate signage. The building’s exterior remains essentially unchanged from its original incarnation as a Chi-Chi’s, and without that chain’s neon logo it appears even more monolithic and ugly. But an attractive interior, outfitted with an Asian-accented decor of blond wood, soft, muted colors, patterned carpet and white tablecloths, belies that outward appearance. A long sushi bar anchors one side of the main room, and booths and tables are nicely spaced. Private dining rooms line another wall, and a large lounge occupies one corner.

Passport’s extensive menu suggests a global concept, but the choices are primarily mish-mashed Asian fusion with occasional intrusions of Mediterranean or American regional flavors. (A large sushi selection, which we didn’t try, makes up half the menu.) The culinary confusion extends to the starch sides, which change frequently. Who, for instance, thought cheddar-asparagus rice would mesh with the menu’s strong Asian bent? Fortunately, mine contained cheddar in name only and so didn’t clash with the accompanying sea scallops in a ginger-orange-uni beurre blanc. Moreover, the scallops and julienned vegetables were nicely seasoned and perfectly cooked. This kitchen isn’t afraid of salt and pepper, a fear most restaurants seem to exhibit, though food unseasoned during cooking never has the flavor it should.

The rest of that evening’s dinner–on a Monday without another visitor after our arrival–proved pleasant if uneven. Our efficient and amiable waitress started us off with well-crafted cocktails and exceptional clams steamed with Thai ginger and lemongrass. Our other appetizers proved less successful. The steamed mussels were tasteless, the Bangkok spring rolls greasy and insipid, and the Mediterranean lamb chops overcooked. One friend’s entree, the “signature petite filet,” had sat on the grill way too long, but when he sent it back, a new one, a perfect medium-rare, appeared, preceded by a complimentary salad. Another’s medium-rare Mongolian beef tenderloin was spot-on, and the mashed potatoes that accompanied the two meat dishes couldn’t have been better. The ahi tuna tataki’s two sauces–a ponzu and a wasabi cream–nicely complemented the sesame seed-encrusted tuna. All of these entrees were moderately priced for their quality and portion size, ranging from $18 for the petite filet to $24 for the scallops. Desserts, a trio of sorbets in an almond Florentine cookie and creme brulee, satisfied but did not thrill.

At another dinner on a moderately busy Saturday, our earnest but inexperienced waiter foundered most of the evening. Our meal began inauspiciously with a trio of cocktails that were either poorly ordered by the waiter or inexpertly poured by the bartender, but appetizers helped mitigate the annoyance. This time, the kitchen cooked the Mediterranean lamb chops perfectly and they tasted delicious eaten without their confused fusion sauce. Edamame are always tasty, and Passport’s are no exception, particularly with the seasoned salt. Fried too long, the Barcelona calamari (what is Spanish about this dish?), with sesame-soy and chipotle aioli dipping sauces, was dry and crispy, though the aioli was pleasant. The Sriracha aioli and ponzu sauces were equally savory, but couldn’t repair the overcooked and flavorless Osaka tempura soft shell crab.

Entrees illustrated the difficulty of maintaining food quality in a fluctuating market. That evening’s Chilean sea bass tasted old, and our almond rice was the dry, crusty stuff scraped from the bottom of the pan. The Korean grilled jumbo shrimp had nice flavor, but the shrimp had been overcooked. My friend’s East Coast cedar salmon was slightly underdone, as requested, though it tasted better without the accompanying Tso sauce. This time, the “signature petite filet” sliced open into a lovely medium rare, and the potato gratin alongside was luscious. The wasabi in the chocolate wasabi cheesecake was in the crust and hardly made an impact, while the filling proved crumbly rather than velvety.

The lounge offers daily attractions–drink and food specials, magic acts, dance instruction, and live music. Perhaps on this Saturday there wasn’t enough lounge business to keep the magician occupied, because during our cocktails he interrupted us to pull a card trick or two. I found this intrusive, though others in the room seemed to receive his overtures more warmly.

To people working, shopping, or living in the Briarwood area, with an adventurous willingness to let a new restaurant work through the foibles of youth, Passport offers many rewards. A quiet lunch in December, for instance, featured an enjoyable chat with the friendly staff and a pad thai fettuccine that, though unlike any pad thai I’d eaten before, proved tangy and flavorful. After all, few places get everything right immediately. Time and experience bring improvement, and Passport’s staff clearly has the desire and ability to make it a destination restaurant.


3776 S. State Street


Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. 4-11 p.m.

Lunch appetizers, soups, and salads, $3-$9, sandwiches $7-$9, entrees $8-$18. Dinner appetizers, soups, and salads, $3-$12, entrees, $12-$29, sushi, $3-$15, desserts, $7-$9.

Wheelchair friendly