Toni Turns to China
The first Chinese restaurants in this country were opened with the intent to serve immigrants from China working during California's gold rush. When American miners took an unexpected shine to the food, a new dining phenomenon was born. By the Twenties, Cantonese chop suey houses had become part of our culinary and cultural landscape (a 1925 hit song was titled "Who'll Chop Your Suey When I'm Gone"), and by the Sixties, the whole nation was "going for Chinese." A decade later, after immigration restrictions were loosened, an influx of Hunan and Szechuan chefs spiced things up considerably, and the popularity of Chinese cuisine continued to escalate -- until other Asian alternatives arrived. Our collective egg drop enthusiasm has subsequently waned, a trend reflected in the upswing of sushi and Thai eateries around town and the correlating dearth of Chinese joints. It's likely this lacking led Toni Takarada to convert his long-running Thai Toni restaurant on South Beach into Mr. Chu's Hong Kong Cuisine. Toni, incidentally, is Japanese.
He didn't have to change the décor much. The 100-seat dining room remains a winsome wedding of wicker and wood (with photos of Thailand still on the wall). Framed in ornately carved wood, colossal Chinese lanterns with red tassels now hang from the ceiling and picture windows along Washington Avenue. Red-cushioned chairs are new, too, and so preposterously wide one might suspect their maker was mocking the magnitude of American posteriors.
The waiters, dressed in silky Chinese uniforms, are given more daunting tasks than most crews and perform them adroitly. They scoop food from serving platters to plates, carve duck and fish tableside, and carry all sorts of fiery objects through the dining room (hibachis, pineapples, et cetera). Sometimes the staff overzealously removed dishes from the table before we were quite finished, but otherwise service was superb -- and I mean beyond the fact that nobody got burned.
I'm glad Chinese-American food has matured since the suey days, but I miss the complimentary accouterments: the pitcher of steaming tea with little white soup cups for sipping; fried wonton noodles with hot mustard and iridescent duck sauce; orange sections and fortune cookies for dessert. We actually did receive oranges and cookies after our initial meal at Mr. Chu's, but only cookies during the second visit and zip on the third trip. Maybe what I yearn for most is the eminently reasonable cost that going for Chinese used to imply. Nowadays prices at places like Miss Yip, Tony Chan's Water Club, and Mr. Chu's are Thai-high.
Mr. Oa Chu is the chef and co-owner here. He previously headed the kitchen at the Water Club, and the influences are clear. Both restaurants serve fresh, picturesquely presented, cleanly flavored renditions of what today is fairly standard stuff. There are some exotic delicacies, like teeny, crunchy fried silverback fish seasoned with Szechuan peppercorn-infused salt; tofu and chicken cooked in anchovy broth; and aphrodisiacal shark's fin. Maine lobster "wok-baked with mozzarella cheese" seems distinctive as well, if a little weird, but most of this menu flows with familiar dumplings, lo mein, broccoli with beef, General Tso's chicken, and so forth. Expectations of such dishes were occasionally dashed or surpassed but usually met head-on.
When we met the Peking duck, for example, it had its head on -- attached to the body by way of a graceful, S-shaped, darkly lacquered neck. What makes this dish special is the painstaking preparation process. First, air is pumped between the skin and flesh, then honey and five-spice aromatics are brushed on, and after that the bird is hung to dry until the skin hardens. (Peking duck is all about the skin; the meat plays an unaccustomed supporting role.) Finally the whole duck is roasted and wheeled into the dining room on a trolley, where the waiter carves it tableside. As is traditional, the first course at Chu's featured squares of sweet, star anise-flavored, intensely crisped skin (with a little meat) rolled with scallions and hoisin sauce into what were billed as "steamed pancakes" (also known as "Peking doilies") but in reality were cold, stiff tortillalike wraps. The second course was the leg meat stir-fried with vegetables in a vaguely satisfying sauce.
Hot-and-sour soup was doubly disappointing: The version was, at best, routine and was parsimoniously portioned into a bowl barely larger than a cup. Garnering more approval were softly steamed dumplings, one order containing minced, pungently seasoned pork and another composed of leeks and lightly spiced shrimp. The best starter brought crisp strips of fried pork tenderloin savorily marinated in red wine and prudently paired with luscious, honey-glazed soy beans.
As is usually the case at Chinese restaurants, main courses are divvied into beef, pork, chicken, duck, vegetables, rice, noodles, shellfish, and seafood. The last category offers snapper, flounder, and Chilean sea bass cooked in assorted ways. We sampled the sea bass, a wide, thin fillet served in an iron casserole with a hibachi hissing fire from below. The fish was glazed in a plummy, not exceedingly sugary sweet-and-sour sauce, with roasted pine nuts soggily sprinkled atop, and a cup of white rice sitting unsteamily on the side. There are better $30 fishes in the sea.
Yeung-chow fried rice wasn't exactly exemplary either, the insipidly seasoned grain blanketed by a bland assemblage of shrimp, ham, roast pork, peas, and pieces of scrambled egg. Curried coconut chicken in a hot clay pot was moist and mildly piquant but bereft of high notes that could lift it from its one-dimensionality. Chow fun was more successful, the wide noodles slippery, but not greasy, and interspersed with tender slices of beef and an assertive black bean sauce. Bok choy sautéed with garlic was appealing too, but $10 is a lot to fork over for a side plate of greens.
Prices here tend to total up quickly, so it might be worthwhile to order Mr. Chu's prix fixe menu. Prepared for a minimum of two people and starting at $50 per head, the meal boasts numerous courses and specialty items. It is hoped the prix fixe dessert selections are more interesting than the regular menu's short list of Americanized sweets -- chocolate volcano, macadamia-caramel tart, et cetera.
Although the history of Chinese-American restaurants continues to be written, it's doubtful Toni's new establishment will ever be billed as one of the best. Still, in this era of limited Chinese options, you could do worse than to choose Chu's.
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