Chu's Taiwan Kitchen and Bar: Dim sum and then some
Dim sum started in Canton and has long been served all over China. It's a spinoff from the older Cantonese tradition of yum cha, a "tea-tasting" rest stop for weary travelers on the Silk Road. Teahouse owners began serving snacks to go with the drink (much like tapas, which were developed as bar snacks to pair with sherry); these little tastes were meant to dim sum, "touch the heart." Dim sum has become more popular than ever in China (and abroad), prompting health officials in that country to issue warnings about the high amount of saturated fat and sodium found in many of those little portions.
This wonderfully unhealthful meal, along with Peking duck, is a specialty of chef O. A. Chu's, whom you might remember from Tropical Chinese, Tony Chan's Water Club, or his own Mr. Chu's Hong Kong Cuisine on South Beach. When that last restaurant ended its run a few years ago, Chu moved to the Gables and opened Chu's Taiwan Kitchen and Bar. This time, there is more emphasis on his native Taiwanese cooking (he originally served sushi here but thankfully removed the Japanese influences from the menu). The resultant fare is fresher and better than that at almost any local Chinese restaurant not situated in an expensive hotel.
Some three dozen dim sum items are offered here every day of the week. They aren't carted into the dining room on a trolley as they were at Mr. Chu's, but that doesn't mean the flavors don't have wheels. Fast-track to the leek dumplings: sizable pan-fried half-moons (almost like empanadas) filled with sweet leeks and tofu. An octet of steamed "soupy pork dumplings" are more delicate — the thin rice flour skin of each containing a mild pork meatball and broth. As is customary, dishes of gingery red vinegar and hot chili oil are served alongside for dipping.
Barbecue pork buns come steamed or baked, the latter boasting a bronzed crust glazed with sugar. Turnip cake is the usual mix of daikon, dried shrimp, and pork sausage mashed together, steamed in loaf form, and sliced. A pair of fried spring rolls pleased with crackly-crisp wrappings as thin as phyllo dough. Sticky rice is imbued with flavor from the lotus leaf in which it's steamed; pieces of chicken, shrimp, and Taiwan sausage give it more spunk than most renditions. Chef Chu, it should be noted, can always be found cooking in the kitchen.
Some of the aforementioned dim sum items are listed as appetizers on the dinner menu. One non-dim sum starter you should strongly consider is a real Taiwanese treat: Five-spiced silverfish brings tiny, smelt-like fish battered and wok-fried to light, puffy perfection. Hot red chilies, jalapeño rings, scallions, and peanuts come tangled with the seafood stogies, which are also tossed in Szechuan peppercorn salt. Deep-fried tofu and Taiwan sausage likewise scored well: The former featured hefty cubes of crisp-skinned soybean curd bathed in sweet ginger sauce; the latter is made with sugar, so it is sweeter than most sausages, and served with onions. One big miss was grilled Japanese eggplant — the vegetable cooked to a properly soft consistency but marred by a miso sauce with a potent raw garlic flavor.
The only disappointment among entrées was chow fun with beef; the noodles were overcooked, and the flavor of the meat, vegetables, and sauce proved flat. Other main courses we tried were exemplary, and none was better than chicken cooked in a hot clay pot. Flattened squares of white breast meat — tossed with straw mushrooms and scallions in a white sauce mildly yet tastefully accented with curry and coconut — were tender as could be.
Peking duck pleased as well. The preparation method, which was formulated during the Ming Dynasty, begins with air being pumped under the duck skin to separate it from the fat. Next the bird is soaked in boiling water, hung to dry, and glazed with sugar or maltose syrup. After 24 hours of hanging around, the duck gets roasted in an oven or, as is done at many restaurants, dunked into a fryer (I'm pretty sure that's how Chu cooks them). Roasting is preferable, but that's too time-consuming when cooking to order. An option is to par-roast the birds and finish them in the oven before service, but that should be done only if you know your dining room will be packed and you'll be able to sell all the par-roasted ducks.
Service of the duck, in keeping with tradition, begins with a presentation of the whole, cooked bird for the diners' approval. A waiter then slices pieces of crisped skin with a little meat clinging to each and rolls them in rice flour crêpes with hoisin sauce and julienned cucumbers and leeks. Chu's staff prepared ten of these for our first course, which is followed by a choice between the remaining meat off the bone and sautéed with vegetables, or on the bone and sautéed with either basil or taro. We chose the latter, which featured moist meat boasting deep, five-spice aromatics tossed with leeks, mushrooms, and slices of mild taro root, which absorbs the soy/hoisin/bean paste flavors of the sauce.
Another Chu signature, which diners might recall from his South Beach spot, is "snapper supreme," in which fillets are removed from the bone, cut into pieces, battered, deep-fried, and tossed in sweet-and-sour ginger sauce. The frame of the whole fish is deep-fried into a cylinder shape that holds the snapper pieces, with fried shoelace potatoes serving as a lid. The fish was fresh and delicious, and the portion was large — yet $34 still seems pricey for a Chinese restaurant entrée (Peking duck is $40, but it's for two). In fact, prices in general are a little high for this genre of dining: Most meat, shrimp, and poultry items range from $16 to $22, while fish and lobster choices go for a market price generally in the $30 to $40 range. Desserts such as green tea ice cream or lychee sorbet are well priced at $4.
Service is attentive enough to perhaps warrant a slight uptick in the average check, but the atmosphere is not upscale. The main dining room is pleasant enough, with olive green walls, a large chandelier, and an open kitchen framed in light brick and dark bamboo shades. The other dining room, which also serves as a bar/lounge, comes perilously close to dive status — meaning not a bad spot to watch a ball game on the flat-screen while swigging Tsingtao beer or $3 Buds. But this restaurant is really best for chowing down on dim sum, duck, and other tasty Taiwanese cuisine from the familiar Mr. Chu.
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