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What a great idea: Fresh, prepared-to-order Chinese food culled from high-quality ingredients; priced at an excellent value; and served in a small, sparse, Asian-inspired dining room (with a smattering of outdoor seats too). Joshua Marcus is the man behind the concept, the counter, and much of the cooking. Experience as sous chef at China Grill might have given him some notions about modernizing an ancient cuisine, but his Chow Down Grill in Surfside is a very scaled-down, simplified version. In fact, if Marcus had been first on the scene, food writers would likely refer to China Grill as "Chow Down Grill on steroids."
The concise menu contains five short sections: sandwiches; dumplings and rolls; salads and soups; entrées; and sides. By all means, start with the dumplings and egg rolls. The latter, two to a serving, are larger, heftier, fresher, and better than others around town — cleanly fried wrappers filled with bright duxelles of chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, and vegetables.
Crab Rangoon is believed to have been first served during the '50s, at Trader Vic's in San Francisco. Chow Down's version brings four crisply fried dumplings filled with a green dip-like mix of spinach and mascarpone cheese, with crab meat invisibly minced in. It wasn't bad, but we much preferred the steamed dumplings. Marcus was formerly pasta maker at Timo Restaurant, and the lush doughs here are delicious — especially the jade-green ones made from basil that wrap around a vibrant chop of organic chicken. Black squid dumplings are special too, filled with shrimp, fennel, and corn. Regular dough envelops finely minced beef, and a much thinner, more delicate wrap is used for a half-dozen chicken won tons that nearly float in a pool of spicy peanut sauce.
Lo mein and chow fun noodles are made on the premises as well. The latter is as broad a cut as you're likely to see; it is also thick with flavor, especially in tandem with bok choy, onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger. The noodle dishes are just $7 apiece, as is an order of fried rice with corn, pepper, and snippets of chive. Like so much else here, the rice is distinctively fresh. That an organic egg is scrambled in makes us feel a bit safer too.
Chicken, shrimp, beef, wild mushrooms, or homemade XO sauce can be added to the starches for a $3 surcharge. Same proteins, same price for plunking extras upon a salad or into a soup. We went with an unadorned Chow Down chop — a melange of napa cabbage crunched with carrots, red onion, radish, cucumbers, and corn; sweet mango and grapes; basil; and cilantro in a mildly spicy chili-flecked lime vinaigrette (or, if you'd rather, with sesame-mustard vinaigrette).
I wouldn't go with the pho — the beefy broth was overwhelmed by too many basil leaves, the noodles were too mushy, and there were no slices of beef (thin and raw or otherwise), which is usually the best part.
Entreés are a choose-your-protein/choose-your-sauce proposition. The former includes shrimp, chicken, steak, tofu, and fish du jour. Each comes with brown or white rice and is $14 — except tofu ($12) and market-priced fish (branzino was $23). A giant, juicy organic chicken breast, sliced into thick, diagonal wedges, was enhanced by a thin, spicy, well-herbed green curry sauce with subtle coconut notes. Pinball-size roasted purple potatoes and bok choy accompany the curry.
A generous portion of grilled Black Angus strip steak was also impressive. We teamed the tasty meat with an Asian-spiced, tomato-based, probably-too-heavy-for-steak Mongolian barbecue sauce. Tofu is of the firm, fresh, ivory-tinted variety, which lends it a meaty texture. Our serving came assertively grilled, paired with a spicy Szechuan sauce — a barbecue sauce not unlike the Mongolian, but with far more piquancy (I suspect a bit too much for most diners' tastes). We loved the grilled white asparagus and darkly roasted almonds that come with the Szechuan treatment.
Sweet-and-sour sauce that bathed eight plump shrimp left us less enthusiastic. Soft spears of mango subtly sweetened the flavor, and roasted walnuts added a welcome crunch, but it lacked the dynamic contrasts typically associated with the namesake sauce.
Don't shy away from asking for your protein without sauce, because six squirt bottles brought to each table are filled with soy, hoisin, duck, peanut, Chinese mustard, and sriracha chili sauces (meaning you can Jackson Pollock your way toward pleasure).
One old-time Chinese restaurant tradition that Chow Down retains is a lack of emphasis on wines. A half-dozen varieties are offered by the glass for $8 or $9 apiece; the only bottle on the menu is a 2008 ZD Chardonnay for $60. Sakes are Nigori and Nama organic. Beer is the beverage of choice — the dozen eclectic bottles going for $6 or $6.50 and ranging from Narragansett to Sapporo; Hop Devil to White Rascal; and Dogfish Head to Dogtoberfest.
One old-time Chinese restaurant axiom that Chow Down shatters is the one that says get out before dessert. Just two treats were proffered during our visits, but both were excellent. Mango rice pudding was — hate to keep repeating the word — fresh, and pieces of the fruit were laced in rather than blended so as not to overpower the pudding. A coconut tartlet arrived in a cup-shaped crust that fit the little bowl in which it was served. The custard was smooth and capped with a sizable crown of whipped cream, but it was the layer of bright-green key lime jelly that kicked it all up a few notches.