The Boston Phoenix
October 23 - 30, 1997

[Dining Guide Special]

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Chau Chow City

With a new flagship eatery, a Chinatown food empire takes a turn for the conservative

by Robert Nadeau

83 Essex Street (Chinatown), Boston; (617) 338-8158
Open Sun - Thurs, 8:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.; and
Fri and Sat, 8:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Full bar
Sidewalk-level access, but bathrooms down a full flight of stairs.

First there was the Swatow stand in the Chinatown Eatery food court. Then came the small Chau Chow, the Grand Chau Chow across the street, and -- along the way -- restaurants outside Chinatown, giant supermarkets, and a food import business. And now the Luu clan has opened one of the largest restaurants ever in Chinatown, three floors of authentic seafood heaven.

The Chau Chow's way with seafood has won many fans over the years, but the new restaurant features a rather conservative, generally Cantonese menu. That's not unusual with very large Chinese restaurants, and it's offset with a noticeable dedication to service. Where most Chinese restaurants break down is at the end of the meal; Chau Chow City is the first restaurant where I've noticed the waiters clearing diligently and setting new dinner plates.

Since the live tanks feature delicacies not recorded on the printed menu -- eels, tautog, and striped bass, along with the crabs and lobsters -- I would suggest inquiring about off-the-menu specials. That's not to say the English-language side of the menu doesn't have some novelties, or that the familiar dishes aren't done very well indeed. But one fishes about for specifically Chau Chow specialties in a menu hard to distinguish from the Hong Kong seafood menus of competitors Grand China, Dynasty, or even China Pearl.

The appetizer list starts conservatively with egg roll and spareribs, and adds the Boston standards of teriyaki and crab rangoon. We tried honey-grilled boneless spareribs ($6.25); the meat appeared to be an actual thin fillet from the sparerib area, roasted with a simple honey-soy marinade. It was chewy, tasty meat, with not too much fat, but the restaurant isn't true to the old Chinese-American condiments: it serves only some applesauce, rather than the "traditional" dip of duck sauce and fresh mustard. Peking ravioli ($5.95, steamed or fried) is another appetizer Boston customers demand in Chinatown, though they acquired the taste in Mandarin-Szechuan restaurants in the '60s and '70s. The Chinatown style of dumplings has always been too bready for my taste; here they are at least served piping hot, with a soy-garlic dip that enhances the gingery pork fillings.

The kitchen is likely more comfortable with the spicy fried calamari ($9.50) done in what is sometimes called "Hong Kong style," with the spiciness coming from a sautée of red pepper flakes, garlic, and green chilies dribbled onto the heaps of fried seafood. The frying, in very light batter, is excellent, and the sweetness of the squid comes through the rather mild bite of the peppers.

One of the more unusual entrees is the Swatowese-style braised duck ($14 half; $24 whole). I was explaining to the server that this fine platter of assorted seafood wasn't something we had ordered, and she was explaining to me that this was the Swatowese braised duck. (It seems that in Swatow, seafood is so prominent that a mild stir-fry of shrimp, scallops, and dried squid is considered a sauce for braised duck.) The actual duck was served boned and with almost all the fat sliced off the skin; the meat was rich but simple in flavor, while the skins had been marinated in five-spice powder and soy sauce, to make them the main focus. One could just as well present this platter as assorted seafood with a sauce of braised duck. Unusual and fun.

"Honey glaze walnut jumbo shrimp" ($12.95) is an interesting dish of numerous large shrimp in what I am fairly sure is a warm, silky, sweetened version of mayonnaise. The delicious fried walnuts form a ring around the outside of the platter. Chau Chow-style rice sticks ($8.25) is a subtly aromatic dish of fine rice vermicelli (like Singapore rice-sticks, only without the curry sauce), flavored with blanched garlic chives (called "yellow chives" elsewhere on the menu), ham, shrimp, and scallions.

Clams with black-bean sauce ($9.95) has been one of my bellwether dishes for Cantonese seafood restaurants, and Chau Chow City's version did not fall short. The shellfish were large cockles -- still half the size of native littlenecks -- from Western Canada, yet fresh and tasty in the tangy sauce of fermented black beans and a few chilies. There was plenty of soy, and possibly some oyster sauce as well.

Beef with broccoli ($8.95) and orange-flavored chicken ($8.95) are Mandarin-Szechuan staples that often join a Southern Chinese menu successfully. At Chau Chow City, the former benefits from excellent beef sliced across the grain for tenderness; the broccoli (steamed rather than stir-fried) was perhaps underdone even by Cantonese standards. The latter dish originally involved stir-frying the flavors of dried chili pods and strips of tangerine peel into the oil used to stir-fry morsels of chicken. Now it barely tastes of orange or chili, and features chicken pieces that are breaded and fried, then presented in a dark, gingery sauce. It's still great eating, but it's unrecognizable as the orange-flavored chicken of the Joyce Chen era.

Chau Chow City serves dim sum daily from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and here the offerings are more adventurous. Along with the familiar shao mai and "crystal shrimp dumpling" (har gow) and stuffed crab claws, there are items like "crystal pea pod stems shrimp & pork dumpling," meatball congee with preserved egg, and shark-fin dumplings.

Despite hundreds and hundreds of seats, Chau Chow City seems a quite manageable size, since the rooms and levels are broken up into attractive spaces. The décor definitely sends a traditional message, with relief dragons and a framed landscape on the main floor. The prominent fish tanks would be even more effective if someone came out of the kitchen and netted something occasionally. Background music is rather impersonal jazz fusion.

The barriers to crossover success still seem very high in Chinatown. Despite more than a decade of success with selling authentic seafood dishes to adventurous non-Asian-Americans, the owners have launched this flagship restaurant with a cautious menu. I'm not a business consultant telling them they're wrong, just a critic telling readers that this is an excellent restaurant for an authentic seafood feast, and a very decent restaurant if some members of your party insist on something more familiar. But you intrepid explorers out there will have to come early for the dim sum, or stay with your favorite of the smaller Chau Chows for most meals.

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