Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chef Xiu--Mountain View, CA

Last Friday night we tried Chef Xiu, which is a few minutes from our home. As always whenever we’re at a Chinese restaurant with my dad, he did the ordering. And, as always, he ordered lots of dishes—we had twelve, in fact. In rough order, they were sliced potato with bell pepper, onion pancakes, Five Fragrance Beef (a cold sliced beef dish), lotus-leaf wrapped shrimp and rice, shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, sizzling tofu with shrimp, noodles with egg and cucumber, pea sprouts, stir-fried lamb with green onion, steamed carp and caramelized squash (more on that later). By the way, it doesn’t do the shrimp dumplings justice to call them simply that. They were a delicacy with a sliced scrambled egg, spinach and shrimp filling.

Overall, the dishes fell into three tiers. There were four that stood out as delightful, six that were good but obtainable elsewhere and one that was a dud. I’ll write about the extremes. The lotus-leaf wrapped shrimp and rice involved using cooked rice and lightly stir-fried shrimp which were then steamed in a lotus leaf. The process gave the shrimp a soft, delicate texture that offered one of the two greatest highlights of the meal. The shrimp dumplings, which I described earlier, were a hit because they were so distinctive. One could feel the shrimp, taste the spinach and see the egg. Because there were so many different sensations playing at once, the dumpling offered the diner a fun little mystery to solve: What exactly is in here? The sizzling tofu with shrimp was my wife’s favorite and I could understand why. What they did well here was the tofu cubes had a lightly fried exterior but a warm, very soft interior. It’s very difficult to get them both right but Chef Xiu pulled it off. Finally, the steamed carp, a Shanghainese dish, was the most tender fish I’ve had in memory. The meat nearly melted in my mouth. I certainly wouldn’t need teeth to eat it. It was served in a brown sauce that was on the sweet side. The fish was filleted and served butterflied on the plate.

The caramelized banana was a misfire from the beginning. First of all, they used bananas there were severely under-ripe (the dark green Costco bananas come to mind). This led to a dessert that was as dry as chalk and left a bitter aftertaste. Perhaps more disappointing, there was no show associated with it. For those who frequented Chinese restaurants growing up, who among you wasn’t amused as a child watching a server dump hot caramelized banana chunks into ice water? There was no such display for us, however, as they were all simply put on a plate in the kitchen then brought to us.

Overall, I thought the meal was a success but I’m not certain if I’ll be returning soon. There were too many shortfalls to give me confidence. We wanted winter melon soup, but they were out of winter melon. I had a craving for fresh ham—a staple of any restaurant featuring Shanghainese cuisine—but they were out. And when we tried to order buns for the kids? They were out of those, too. And then there were those caramelized bananas.

This restaurant has all the signs of a mom-and-pop operation including the small dining area (about seven tables), the cash-only policy and the fact that one had to walk through part of the kitchen to get to the single-use restroom. It may be harsh, then, to criticize them for the three dishes they couldn’t deliver rather than praise them for the twelve they did. However, it’s far less disappointing to the customer to offer a shorter menu that can be fully supported than an extensive one that’s in part just for show.

Chef Xiu
855 W El Camino Real
Mountain View, CA 94040
(650) 988-8820
Cash only
Additional parking in rear