Once upon a time, the kitchen was a great place to hide. Men and women could choose the cooking biz not only to showcase their talents in the culinary arts, but also for the privacy that was afforded them as they toiled in obscurity behind those swinging doors.
Celebrity chefdom has changed all that. Spotlighted in their (practically mandatory) open kitchens, chefs are now on display, the main attraction. We read their life stories in magazines, glean their recipes from glossy cookbooks and glitzy Websites, hear their voices on the radio, see their faces on their very own television network. And we have come to expect access to every little detail of their lives, right down to their culinary secrets.
All of which may seem a trifle daunting for a master of subtlety. Like, for instance, Taiwanese chef O.A., who mans the kitchen at the two-month-old Stix Oriental Grille in North Miami. (Neither the chef's publicist nor staff at the restaurant could explain his unusual appellation. Nor could the chef -- to me, anyway. He doesn't speak English.) He might divulge one or two ingredients of a dish when asked, but he'll eventually turn his back on too many questions. During a recent meal with a friend who's allergic to wheat, we quizzed the waitress about a dumpling dish. She disappeared into the back, then returned with a fact: The dumplings contain shrimp. Sounds good, but how's the dough made? When we explained our persistence, she obliged us. Fortunately, while O.A. may be secretive, he doesn't want to kill off his clientele. And so it was that we learned that he uses rice flour to make his shrimp and leek dumplings.
Chef O.A. may also be shy, but his 6000-square-foot eatery, located on the ground floor of a North Miami office building where Luna Caffe formerly held sway, demands attention. Owner Tom Billante (who also owned Luna and still has the burgeoning international Mezzanotte empire and Carpaccio in the Bal Harbour Shops) has made certain his chef will be noticed: An immaculate stainless steel kitchen dominates the rear portion of the elegant, spare dining room, in full view of diners. The setup includes a glassed-in warming case that holds roasted ducks hanging by their feet. This traditional display should reassure potential patrons who might be turned off by the restaurant's cutesy, ambiguous moniker. The contemporary fare, less derivative and more Chinese than the name suggests, will take care of the rest.
We began our meal with one of those roasted birds, a superior Peking duck ($35.00) presented at the table by a server who sliced away polished vermilion skin, like the veneer of a mahogany table. The meat was taken back to the kitchen to be sauteed with bean sprouts and served as a main course, but the skin was immediately rolled in pancakes with scallions and plum sauce. A welcome nicety: The resulting cones were placed in holders to keep them upright. The skin was delicious, buttery and crisp, complemented by the concentrated, tart plum sauce and delicately elastic wrappers.
Clams in black bean sauce were another excellent appetizer, the shellfish tender and supple, steamed in their shells and smothered with fragrant, garlicky sauce. Jumbo shrimp stuffed with whole salted black walnuts, glazed with a honeyed cream sauce and arranged on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes, also made a gorgeous presentation, though some of the prawns tasted overly fishy.
Seven different kinds of soup provide an alternative way to awaken the appetite. A "tai-chi" crab soup (offered as a portion for two, $7.95) was impressive, and not only because the fragrant fish stock featured hunks of flavorful crabmeat. Swirls of egg white and leaves of baby spinach floated enticingly, the fluffy clouds drifting to one side of the serving bowl, the cool greens collecting on the other. Hot and sour soup, though rife with shredded pork and wood ear mushrooms, as well as chunks of boiled white tofu and bamboo shoots, could have used a stronger dose of the sour (rice vinegar). But the hot part was great, a gentle zing that settled in the back of the throat.
Main courses may be inventive (fillet of flounder stir-fried in a mix of salt and crushed Szechuan pepper and served in a decorative basket with wine-glazed bananas), dramatic (fried rice served in a pineapple boat), or traditional (cashew chicken). With beef clay pot ($11.95), we were treated to a combination of all three aspects. Taking advantage of the centuries-old clay-pot cooking technique, the beef had been sliced thin and simmered with ginger root and scallions in a brown stock composed of rice wine and clam broth. Broccoli florets absorbed the aromatic sauce, which was almost flowery in its visual appeal.
Orange peel pork chops, sliced wafery like the beef, were also succulent and flavorful. Pared into lacy sections, the meat (with bone attached) was dredged in flour and fried, then coated with a fruity, tangy citrus patina with tiny mandarin orange segments as a garnish.
One of the evening's more dramatic presentations involved the aforementioned dumplings. These pan-fried morsels, stuffed with chunks of mild shrimp and threads of leek and dressed with a garlic-red pepper concoction, alternated with sea scallops on a sizzling stone dish ($18.95). Unfortunately, the stone, which would have set a pot of water to boiling had it been dropped into one, continued to cook the seafood after it was brought to the table; toward the end of the meal the scallops became a little rubbery. Eating quickly didn't exactly solve matters either; the steam from the dumplings threatened to raise blisters on the roof of one's mouth.
In a gourmet Chinese restaurant, portions are frequently too small, dainty tastes of delicacies that satisfy the palate but not the appetite. Not so here, where generosity seems as much the rule as skill. Stix also offers rich and filling Western desserts (which to some may seem as odd as the French-Italian wine list, a holdover from the Luna days). These sweets are whisked to the table by a trio of waiters who describe each one in minute detail. We chose a refreshingly juicy strawberry shortcake, the white layers accented by butter cream and bright ruby berries. And those disappointed by the lack of Asian-theme last courses might find solace in the black-and-white sauce, shaped like a yin-yang symbol, beneath the chocolate cake, or the cream puffs fashioned into little swans.
Chef O.A. received some attention at his previous place of business, Ming Court, a popular Asian restaurant he ran in Orlando. But that should be nothing compared to what he's bound to get here in Miami, where a dearth of fine-dining Chinese has always distressed fans of the cuisine (me in particular). He can prevaricate about ingredients all he wants. We'll be persistent. We'll be back.
Stix Oriental Grille
11900 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 893-7080. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.
Tai-chi soup (for two)
Beef clay pot
Grilled scallop and dumpling
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