Chow down at Chow for fusion

In restaurants, my fork often sidles over to the plates of my dinner companions, sneaking away with a bite of what they ordered. This is not an act of greed or gluttony but professional curiosity. What if his lamb shank is better than my veal? What if I should have ordered the chicken-fried steak? What if (God forbid!) he discovered the best chili in three states and I missed out?!

At Chow, this sort of behavior is not scorned but rather encouraged. Nestled in the alleyway behind Zinc, this newcomer to New Haven brings something truly new to the scene: A casual but stylish restaurant serving food in the trendy “small plates” style that is sure to appeal to a wide variety of New Havenites.

Chow describes itself as a “Dim Sum Wine Bar,” and while it serves dumplings and offers a respectable number of wines, both terms are a little misleading. Offering a wide variety of small dishes designed to share at prices ($4-$9) that encourage you to order several, Chow is more of an Asian-fusion tapas restaurant.

Supporting Chow’s claim to be a dim sum restaurant are three varieties of dumplings. The pork and ginger and chicken and peanut varieties (both $7), while not groundbreaking, are more than just competent. Both are steamed siu mai (pronounced like “my shoe,” but backwards) style dumplings, the small basket-like dumplings with filling sticking out the top that are served in Chinese, Japanese and Thai restaurants alike. The chicken and peanut are a great combo (think chicken satay), and the ginger comes through nicely in the pork and ginger variety. I did not try the sweet shrimp dumplings ($8), but I doubt I would be disappointed. Do not miss the black bean and water chestnut bun ($6), the most intriguing dish on Chow’s menu. For you dim sum virgins out there, a bun is essentially a steamed dumpling on steroids — bigger and doughier with more filling. Chow’s breed does justice to the species. Sweet and hot at the same time, the buns melt in your mouth but leave a spicy reminder that they were there. A caveat — Chow seems to apply hoisin sauce (a thick, reddish-brown, spicy-sweet Chinese condiment made from a mixture of garlic, soybeans, chiles and various spices) with a pressure washer. This problem is easily remedied, however, with a little deft chopstick work.

It’s a little surprising that we have a culinary scene in which a rare tuna and seaweed salad ($9) seems conventional and run-of-the-mill, but nevertheless, here we are, where chicken a la king is dead, and fusion cuisine is the norm. But conventional dishes are often conventional because they are good, as is the case with this Japanese-inspired favorite. Again, the kitchen went a little hog-wild with the hoisin but balanced the flavor with an excellent creamy wasabi dressing.

If you make it to Chow, save room for dessert. Or go just for dessert. The short dessert menu offers some of Chow’s most ambitious and successful dishes. Given how good the black bean and water chestnut bun was, I had high hopes for the steamed sweet chocolate buns ($5). I was not disappointed — the super sweet buns, paired nicely with a slightly tart passion fruit dipping sauce, are the type of innovative desserts every restaurant should be offering instead of another lame rendition of New York cheesecake. Not a chocolate lover? Try the crispy banana roll ($5), basically a banana rolled in wonton wrappers and deep fried, served with a tamarind dipping sauce. This is the savory spring roll’s sweet doppelganger, and it represents the sort of creativity Chow excels at and should apply to more dishes.

The best thing about Chow is its versatility. Go for cocktails — the sangria ($5 per glass / $25 per pitcher) is excellent — and a light snack. Go for a full dinner. Go for dessert. Take a date there. Take your parents there. The atmosphere is simultaneously elegant and casual; the staff is always available but not in-your-face. Chow’s food is best at its most creative, but the more commonplace dishes are well-executed also, and you can try a little bit of everything.

I’d like to live in a world where all restaurant food is communal, and everyone can try everything, lest he miss anything. Until then, there’s Chow, ensuring that everyone has an equal share of the best and, if the kitchen should ever misfire, that no single person’s meal is ruined. As the old saying goes, “A joy shared is doubled; a sorrow shared is cut in half.” Fortunately for us, Chow is all joys.

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