Did we really need to rediscover our inner chow mein?
I didn't think so. After all, who ever thought we'd see that bland bomb of Americanized-ethnic cooking in a new restaurant - it's so mid-20th century. But just when I thought we'd arrived in a new era of sophistication in our approach to international flavors, embracing authenticity instead of hosing it down, along comes the unfortunately named Chew Man Chu, Marty Grims' campy purple wok-bar in Symphony House.
This pan-Asian eatery not only distances itself from the apparently intimidating flavors of nearby Chinatown ("very ethnic . . . hard to understand for part of the Caucasian market," Grims has been told), it does so with cliched style, and enough lacquered sweetness to make your teeth ache.
The honey chicken, for example, is essentially an extra-tame General Tso's, its crisp poultry puffs glistening in a mint-flecked glaze. The thick slabs of satay weren't just overcooked, their marinade was slightly out of sync - without the typical curry, it tasted like chicken-flavored coconut-peanut pie. And why does the miso ramen soup have a sweet and tangy resemblance to the restaurant's hot and sour soup? The culinary confusion here is rife.
Chew Man Chu's chow mein, meanwhile, is an ode to bland nostalgia: it lands on our table - splat! - like a meteor of stir-fried chicken wrapped in the crispy veil of a giant egg-roll wrapper. "How clever!" I think as the waitress flips it over and cracks the wrapper apart. But when I taste the filling, I discover a white glop of chicken and celery so tasteless, it's actually authentic 1950s-style Chinese American fare.
The chance for an ironic tweak of a Chinese American classic here is lost, and the message is convoluted - even misguided for the sake of artifice. How else to explain the image of Puyi (China's "Last Emperor") so prominently displayed in Warhol-esque colors as the restaurant's logo? To Grims' team, the bespectacled Puyi in dapper Western garb was simply a catchy design element and symbol of East-West fusion. To many Chinese, though, he was the ultimate sellout of their national identity, a puppet of the Japanese who embodied China's emasculation and the end of its grand dynasty.
That about sums up the cooking here, too, which was so out of register with any genuine Asian flavors I've had that, by comparison, it makes P.F. Chang's taste like Susanna Foo.
Granted, Grims (who also owns the Moshulu, Plantation, White Dog, and others) set out to create a casual pan-Asian restaurant with a mass appeal to "nonfoodies." The lighthearted approach should be obvious from the goofy name, a riff on the egg-roll-munching Japanese video game Chew Man Fu. And it certainly has drawn a steady stream of crowds to the former Du Jour space, with its calligraphy-scrolled windows, illuminated community table, and a purple-and-orange decor that vibrates with energy as the open wok kitchen pumps out multicourse meals in less than an hour. Perfect for the theater crowd.
Amid the frenetic vibe, though, there was sloppy attention to details, like playing an R-rated martial-arts film on the TV in a family-friendly restaurant. We were served rice in chipped white bowls and black cloth napkins smudged with schmutz. The men's room was dirty (though cleaned once the manager was informed). And why, I wonder, does such a slick place keep a cart stacked with bus tubs in the dining room?
The young servers couldn't have been nicer or more enthusiastic. But only one of three (Bobby) managed to tame the flood of family-style dishes arriving at our table into a reasonable pace. (Unfortunately, they only half-heartedly wiped our table as this parade of sticky-sauced dishes came and went.)
Of more concern, though, were the flavors on the plate. Grims' aspiration to speak to the "unadventurous, nonfoodie crowd" isn't ultimately Chew Man Chu's undoing. We've learned from myriad fusion successes, from Foo to Buddakan, Nectar, Izakaya, and Chifa, that strict "traditional" isn't necessarily the definitive barometer of "good."
But there were so few memorably enjoyable dishes here, the execution clearly needs serious work. There were, to be sure, a handful of highlights. The stir-fried Singapore noodles had a brightly curried punch. A couple of dishes with giant sweet butterflied shrimp were actually exceptional - crisply fried "salt and pepper" style beneath a confettilike chop of carrot and scallion salad; and simmered Thai-style inside a rich coconut red curry alongside some whole mini-eggplants. The ginger-steamed salmon with black bean sauce was moist and flavorful.
I would have loved the rice powder-dusted Thai beef salad if the fish sauce dressing (in a rare case of flavor overdrive) had dialed back the spice a notch. The wonton soup, likewise, was nearly there with a perfect golden broth. The clumsily house-made wontons, though, filled with whole shrimp and coarse-cut pork, were doughy and unwieldy to eat.
The house-made dumplings, in general, were big disappointments. The unnaturally green chicken-spinach dumplings were doughy. The crispy pork pot-stickers were filled with errant gristle. And there was also something unexpectedly crunchy inside the rubbery pureed poultry centers of the crispy garlic chicken rolls. The oxtail dumplings were all pink and bouncy inside, with none of the tenderness I'd expect from a slow-braised meat. The deeply steeped dark gravy that pooled around them like deconstructed soup dumplings, meanwhile, was both intensely over-seasoned and jarringly sweet.
It was a common theme. Deep-fried croquettes, whether filled with dark chile paste and shrimp (for "Burn Your Mouth") or a special with crab, conch and corn, came gilded with syrupy glaze. The mooshoo chicken, served with doughily undercooked pancakes, was slathered in too much hoisin. The grilled Korean short rib already had a cloying taste from its apple juice marinade (some orchard fruit here isn't uncommon), but the last thing it needed was the dark sweet gloss of Chinese char-siu barbecue sauce.
Other dishes, meanwhile, wasted promising savory ideas with sloppy cooking. I loved the notion of a duck twist on the chicken lettuce wraps popularized by P.F. Chang's, but these finely minced duck bits were so overcooked and chewy, they might as well have been mystery meat. The all-trendy pork belly, meanwhile, made one of its least appealing cameos I've seen. With thick jellied layers of under-rendered fat and less-than-tender meat stacked high on a steamed bun like an Asian pastrami sandwich, this belly put some genuine "chew" in Chew Man Chu. Yum.
The dessert selection is mercifully short, with some brought-in exotic sorbets. But there's really no need since everyone gets complimentary doughnut holes, freshly fried and stuffed with chocolate, dipped in honey then shaken tableside with powdered sugar. Of course. Despite its many flaws, Chew Man Chu somehow succeeds in sending its customers off with a sweet taste in their mouths.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fish. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.