Upscale Chinese

Two new restaurants make Chinese food special again.


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The crab at XO Seafood will make you lick your fingers after cracking it open. photos: Olivier Koning

A few months ago, I started wondering, "Whatever happened to Chinese restaurants?" It wasn't that Chinese food had disappeared. In fact, it's hard to go far on O'ahu without encountering pretty good Chinese food, readily available, priced to move. That may be part of the problem.

Chinese restaurants, once central to Island social life, have slipped down the fashionability scale. Going out for Chinese food has become, well, just eating. A meal in a Chinese restaurant seldom ranks as an occasion. Perhaps the best-known Chinatown restaurantsÐLittle Village, Mei SumÐdraw a hip, diverse clientele. But they are hardly places where you'd say, Hey, it's our anniversary, let's go.

So it was with great pleasure that I saw, within months of each other, two sets of experienced Chinese restaurateurs open eateries that were clearly designed to be a cut above.

XO SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
1718 Kapi'olani Blvd.
942-2020
Daily 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

My local food consultant and I invited another couple to eat at XO, the new (since November) Chinese restaurant cattycorner from the Convention Center. Our guests looked around with surprise: "It's nice."

XO is a midsize restaurant, 88 seats, with the dining room in two parts. The window side, which looks out on Kapi'olani, is all black contemporary furniture. The interior room has plush chairs upholstered to match the burnt-orange ceiling. "They're comfortable, almost living room chairs," said our guests.

The tablecloths were real linen, not protected by a sheet of clear plastic. The aquarium, which seems obligatory in seafood restaurants, was not plunked down at the entrance, but discreetly lined one far wall.

We got the menus, which were also that burnt-orange color. Apparently no one had eaten lunch, because we just started ordering everything that sounded good. We didn't realize how much food we had ordered until the waiters came and asked us to move back from the table a minute.

They lifted the table wings. Suddenly, our square table for four became a round table for sixÐor, in this case, for four people who ordered seven dishes and needed the space.

Amazingly, we ate it all. XO's food was that good.

Which brings us to the restaurant's name. XO, as you probably know, is a designation for top-of-the-line, very old cognac. There are a few XO cognacs on display here, but the XO that gives this restaurant its name has nothing to do with distilled spirits.

Instead, XO's cuisine relies heavily on XO sauceÐa mysterious concoction which proves that not all Chinese cuisine is based on centuries-old tradition.

XO sauce appeared in Hong Kong 20 years ago, and has since swept the globe. By now, there are multiple recipes, but at base, it's a powerful mix of red chilies, black pepper, dried shrimp and scallops, salted fish, onion, garlic and the famous ham from the city of Jinhua.

XO the restaurant has not one but three XO sauces. The rib-eye steak, which arrived sizzling on a platter, topped with onions and mushrooms, was accompanied with an XO steak sauce. The thick, brown sauce had that base of fervent XO flavors plus a touch of sweetness.

The steak was so well seasoned, so nicely medium rare, that, after one taste, I stopped using the sauce. In the same way you'd decline to dip a Ruth's Chris filet mignon in A-1. However, opinions varied. One of our party thought the "fabulous" sauce made the steak.

At its best, XO is more than a condiment. Take, for instance, the whole crab in XO chili sauce. The sauce was so addictive that I spent a lot of time licking my fingers after I cracked the crab.

An elderly lady, elegantly dressed, was being shown to a table. She detoured by ours and inquired what we were eating. "Is it good?" she asked.

Informed that the XO chili sauce was one of the most amazing flavor clusters we'd ever encountered, she said, "I'll get it. But I'll get a lobster. Crab is too much work." It was work we gladly did, though we definitely needed the large finger bowl the waiter provided.

Besides XO sauce, the kitchen came up with other engaging flavors. The five-spice peppery prawns, battered and deep fried with a touch of garlic butter, were so good we crunched them down shells and all. The lamb ribs, fatty, full-flavored, were slathered in a barbecue sauce that, despite its sweetness, set off the meat well. And the whole fish arrived in classic ginger-onion-shoyu sauce. The waiter, showing surprising dexterity, boned it tableside and then reassembled it so it looked whole.

It was hard to fault the service. We got clean plates the minute ours got cluttered, platters were whisked away the second they were empty.

You won't find any tacky plastic covers over the tablecloths in XO Seafood Restaurant's dining room.

I'd brought wine because I'd heard XO did not yet have a liquor license. The information was out of date, but I was pleased to have my wine tote, because XO stocks favorites like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, wines that are not particularly congenial with Chinese food.

As soon as I whipped out a bottle of Riesling, the waitress said, "You need cups." She brought not cups, but perfectly nice wine glasses. When I wanted a second set of glasses for the pinot noir, those arrived in a hurry as well. Corkage was a nominal $2 a bottle.

We had to switch back and forth between red and white wines for a reason. If XO has a fault, it's pace. The food arrives bang-bang-bang, one dish after another, seafood after meat, noodles before shrimp.

The delicate steamed fish would have been better before the XO onslaught. And at the end of the meal we got a dish we expected as an appetizerÐlarge, fresh Pacific oysters, baked with spinach and a creamy cheese sauce.

I was so full I couldn't finish the last oyster. The rest of the table, undeterred, ordered desserts. One of our party was enthusiastic for almond floatÐJell-O, condensed milk, almond extract. I used to love it as a kid, but no longer. "This is excellent almond float," insisted my friend. Yes, but.

If some anonymous culinary genius can come up with XO sauce, it is it too much to ask for a great Chinese pastry chef to arrive and rescue desserts in Chinese restaurants?

In the meantime, XO serves tiramisu, a dessert that now transcends cultures. It was just a commercial tiramisu, sliced and served. But I have to admit, it was a hit around the table, something sweet after dinner.

Dinner for four was $150 with tip. It would have been cheaper if we'd ordered less food. On the other hand, we really enjoyed all seven courses plus dessert.

I talked to owner Yuka Chau, whose partner and ex-husband Raymond Chau is the wizard in the kitchen. The Chaus owned Won Kee, one of the first Chinese seafood restaurants in Honolulu. They sold it a year ago and, after extensive remodeling, it's still open under the new ownership in the Chinese Cultural Plaza.

I pointed out that XO seemed quite busy. "The Chinese followed us from Won Kee," she said. "And the Japanese followed the Chinese. We get a lot of Koreans now, because of the neighborhood." Then she remembered who she was talking to. "Oh, yes, and some Caucasians," she said. "They come too."

THE MANDALAY
1055 Alakea St.
525-8585
Daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards

Larry and Linda Chan, who owned three popular Eastern Garden restaurants, sold them all to consolidate in one downtown eatery. "We wanted to concentrate," says Linda. "It's a pleasure to have just one restaurant."

The one restaurant is a complete remake of the old Yong Sing space on Alakea StreetÐnow clean, bright, modern, full of expensive glass and wood accents. It's also huge, 350 seats, some upstairs in a mezzanine.

The whole setting cries out "special occasion." For us, it was a special occasion. It was Boy's Night Out, and the gentlemen gathered at the table, admiring the tablecloth imported from China and complaining about the level of illumination. "Do all Chinese restaurants have stock in the power company?" asked one. "Why is it so bright?"

The best thing about going out with the boys is that they are an adventurous bunch. They'll try anything, which was a good break, because The Mandalay is a no-compromises Chinese restaurant.

Take the appetizer platter. No fried wontons here, no chunks of char siu. On the platter were the house roast duck, sliced cold five-spice beef shank, thin-sliced pork trotters and a jellyfish salad. All very good, the dried jellyfish carefully soaked, cut into thin slices like amber-colored fettuccini, dressed with a bit of sesame oil and shoyu, a great firm yet yielding texture, a surprisingly delicious experience.

The appetizers arrived on a large platter, but instead of plunking the platter down in the middle of the table and letting us fend for ourselves, the waiter then served up four small plates, one for each of us.

Then, with a good sense of pace, he waited for us to finish before serving the next course, the shark fin soup. We'd noticed in a lustrous wood and glass display cabinet two very large shark fins. Fins of that size were rarities, the waiter informed us, worth more than $10,000 apiece. One reason they're rarities, of course, is that shark finning has fallen into moral and sometimes legal disfavor around the globe.

I asked around the table. Nobody had ever tasted shark fin soup. We decided we better remedy that before shark fin soup got banned.

We considered that "Supreme Shark Fin Soup" at The Mandalay was $48 a bowl. Not a big bowl for the table, mind you. A single bowl, for one. The boys are not cheap, but no one wanted to blow $200 on the soup course. We settled on a single bowl, each of us getting a couple spoonfuls. The waiter, ever thoughtful, broke down the single bowl into individual portions.

I was disappointed. Not in the soup itself, which was rich with chicken broth and smoky and salty with Virginia ham. It also had a deep, rich seafood flavor. "Ah ha," I thought. "Shark fin tastes like dried scallops." But, of course, I was na•ve. There were dried scallops adding depth to the broth.

Shark fin doesn't taste like anything. After hours and hours of careful simmering, the dried fin, its skin removed, breaks apart into thin shards of cartilage. These impart an interesting textureÐlike cellophane noodles, but firmer. But I can't think of a similar rare and expensive ingredientÐtruffles, caviar, kazunokoÐthat doesn't have a flavor you just can't duplicate with another ingredient.

I decided the main pleasure of shark fin soup might be eating something that might otherwise eat you, a top-of-the-food-chain experience.

When I talked to Linda Chan later, she said she'd had no criticism for serving shark fin. "We get a lot of people asking for it, birthdays, anniversaries. It's expensive, so people treat themselves." She will cook up one of those $10,000 shark fins on display for you, but she'll need 48 hours notice.

With the $48 bowl of soup, we were drinking a halbtrocken (half-dry) Riesling, which I'd brought in. It was the right wine. We'd begun dinner with Champagne, which held up well till we hit a red vinegar-chili oil dip that came with the appetizers. Then the Riesling took over. I brought wine even though Mandalay does have a wine list, which runs to heavier wines. When I talked to Linda Chan later, she seemed interested. "I've learned something, I will look into putting a Riesling on the list."

The rest of dinner was great, though without the drama of the first courses. They arrived, thankfully, one by one, though more rapidly paced.

The fresh abalone was thin sliced, served over a bed of braised lettuce with large, perfect shintake mushrooms. These were originally dried, with all the concentration in flavor that implies. They were reconstituted in a broth almost as good as the one the shark fin arrived in. We liked them even better than the abalone.

The fresh scallops, slightly spicy, came on a bed of broccoli florets that were perfectly jade green, cooked crisp-tender.

The only disappointment was the tangerine beef, which arrived in a heavy glaze. Although Linda Chan later said it was one of the restaurant's most popular items, it was far too sweet for us. "Meat candy," said one of the boys.

We ate a fair bit of it anyway, which was good because dessert offerings were sparse. I declined almond float, but the waiter encouraged us to try the mango pudding, which had been molded in the shape of a heart.

It was OK, though it made us hungry for mango sorbet instead. Once again it occurred to me: If Chinese chefs can turn the most fearsome predator in the ocean into soup, they must be capable of absorbing Western culture and coming up with the perfect Chinese dessert.

Still, dinner was a success. "You feel you've really eaten somewhere," said the boys. Despite our predilection for high-end ingredients, including the shark fin soup and the $38 abalone, dinner for four was a not unreasonable $175. We'll be back.

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