By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
The bad news, for other sales-oriented folk, is that Pao is actually just the Cantonese word for "to be full or sated." Sorry. But there's good news for diners: Pao's food is pretty darned terrific. And celebs have already been discovering it. Gloria and Emilio Estefan, for instance, have been in (for one of every appetizer on the menu, reportedly) -- but of course they would be; like most well-traveled folks who live here, they must be as starved for truly good Chinese food as the rest of us. Sure, there are a handful of places that do fairly tasty take-out if one doesn't demand real authenticity, much less real creativity of the kind demonstrated by Jean-Georges Vongerichten's new 66 in NYC or in countless new-wave restaurants in China itself (particularly in Shanghai), where fusion cooking -- interregional like Cantonese/Szechuan, Pan Asian like Chinese/Thai, and international like Chinese/French -- is the rage.
So we do hope that chef Kiki Anchana Praropkul's Pao thrives. Prices are relatively high ($14 for mixed-ingredient fried rice, $19 for sweet and sour shrimp). And dealing with South Beach self-parking or Pao's valets just to grab a little cashew chicken on the way home from work is daunting, should one opt to take out rather than dine in the refurbed Clinton Hotel's stylish glass-enclosed interior or the restaurant's white-tented poolside cabanas. On the other hand, it was nice to discover that, contrary to reports in another local paper, take-out is indeed available -- and, though aficionados know that real Chinese cuisine is best eaten within minutes after cooking, I can report that the take-out I got on one visit was still scrumptious a 25-minute car ride later. Cher, in fact, reportedly ordered $144 worth of take-out one night while in town filming. More telling, she ordered more the next night.
The dishes that Praropkul (who's Thai-raised of Chinese parentage, including a chef dad) turns out are not all, as early press releases touted, "vintage Cantonese" or, according to the chef, "the Chinese food everyone knows and loves." There's no chow mein, no lobster Cantonese, no egg rolls; there are numerous dishes that are more classic Southeast Asian -- or Southern Californian/Floribbean -- than classic Chinese: shrimp/Thai basil summer rolls, greens with carrot/ginger vinaigrette, lemon-grass beef salad, coconut shrimp. But everything I tried was good, and some dishes were outstanding.
Of all that we tried in two visits, the dish that had the most people shamelessly licking the serving platters was, oddly, a simple vegetarian one: spicy Chinese long bean. The dish was similar to common Szechuan restaurant dry-fried string beans -- green beans wok-seared with fresh hot chilies, ginger, and much garlic -- but with yard-long beans substituted for string beans, to great effect. The more unusual legume (unusual used young as a stir-fry pod; in its mature form, known as cow pea, it's the source of good old Southern black-eyed peas) is much meatier than string beans though just as tender and, especially pleasant, it lacks nasty strings. It therefore holds up better to frying, but makes for a more elegant dish.
Stir-fried seasonal greens, described as market-fresh Chinese greens, were also elegantly prepared (in a flavorful but very light garlic/ginger sauce thickened only minimally, as in China, by cornstarch) but, disappointingly, not Chinese. They were asparagus -- perfectly peeled, true, making me appreciate how much more delicate the stalks are prepared with that rare care. But frankly I was in the mood for mustard greens, bok choy, Chinese broccoli ... something Chinese, as promised.
A third vegetable dish, stir-fried tofu with shiitake and scallion, was exactly that, in a subtle sauce similar to that of the asparagus but with a bit more soy saltiness. The tasty bean-curd triangles did look and taste deep-fried rather than wok-sautéed as described, but this gave the dish the staying power to make a tasty cold breakfast right outta the fridge the next morning, as we Chinese take-out fans like it the second day.
Among appetizers or "small plates," old Szechuan standby cold sesame noodles was indeed a very small serving for the price ($8) and just okay. Super-thin egg noodles made the dish daintier than usual, but the sesame/peanut sauce, lacking in any soy/vinegar succulence, was bland. Ordering hot and sour cabbage as a companion dish helped, providing much-needed jalapeño kick plus crunch, though the rather wilted carrot-flecked napa cabbage looked as though it would've been better some hours before. Two salt and pepper preparations, flash-fried shells-on (but unfortunately heads-off) shrimp and lightly battered squid, were superior starters, with absolutely addictive salt-fried fresh chili slivers.
Classic roast duck, marinated and then slow-cooked in a Chinese barbecue oven, had beautifully crisp skin and just enough fat for me, but had a bit too strong of an anise/five-fragrance powder flavor for my taste. But Manila clams, so often overwhelmed by oversalty black bean sauce, were wonderfully subtle. Although considerably larger than most Manilas, the clams were steamed perfectly tender, and sauced with a beautifully balanced blend of garlic, ginger, and chilies that played off exquisitely against the shellfish's sweetness.
Another "large plate," sweet and sour shrimp, was simply the best version I've ever had. Forget the usual coarse, cloying Chinese-American stuff with its gluelike sugary sauce and canned pineapple; genuine Chinese sweet/sour dishes feature a complex balance of sweetness, salt, and tang -- as does Pao's preparation of battered shrimp and fresh veggies. And hot and sour snapper fillet features an even more complex, and definitely more original, sauce, adding citrus, tomato, and hot peppers to the sugar/vinegar blend. Additionally the fish's fried coating was so crisp and light that Pao's crispy lemon chicken would have been impossible to resist, had I two stomachs. Next time. And despite Pao's distressing discontinuation, only two months after opening, of its super-cute chocolate mousse-filled giant fortune cookie, there will be a next time.