On a blustery Monday night, Chew Man Chu, the new Chinese-fusion restaurant in the Symphony House on the Avenue of the Arts, is packed. One foursome agrees that it’s better here than at Maggiano’s, where they last gathered. At another table, one lady asks the other if she’s heard of that new Italian restaurant way north on Broad — Osteria? The woman shakes her head no. And that’s all the restaurant chatter I hear throughout my visits; its absence is an example of what makes this spot a refreshingly pretense-free zone.
[sidebar]No one jots down notes or snaps blog shots with a camera. The servers treat every guest as though he or she has never been to a shared-plates restaurant before. The neon-orange, green and purple wallpaper, with its half-floral, half-Chinese-character print, is as silly as a teenager’s tattoo, and the restaurant’s bad-pun name is even goofier. Yet this slick blend of sly humor and value-minded grub that’s better than you’d expect draws a big, diverse crowd, even on a cold Monday night.
The “It’s just food” ethos belies the skill in the kitchen. Executive chef Tyson Wong Ophaso has worked for culinary legends including Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud. He has even appeared on Iron Chef America and battled Morimoto. With a Thai-Chinese–Indonesian-Laotian-Japanese heritage and a well-stamped passport, Ophaso has cooked and eaten Asian food around the globe. Don’t be fooled by Chew Man Chu’s atmosphere of whimsy; there’s a heavily credentialed chef fermenting mung beans for his excellent homemade soy sauce.
The menu is sprawling, with more than 50 dishes rooted in half a dozen national cuisines — so big that it’s tough to make general recommendations. Two themes emerged as strong suits for Ophaso during my visits: creative fusion stuff that sounds like it will never work, and faithful renderings of the Thai dishes Ophaso grew up on. The “Burn Your Tongue” dumpling (not as hot as it sounds) is a ricotta cheese, bread flour and pureed shrimp dough wrapped around a heart of homemade chili paste. My Italian grandmother would blanch at the combo, but it works.
Similarly inventive: potato leek spring rolls. The vegetables are bound with a thick hollandaise sauce, and the bite does capture the essence of the soup it invokes. Two Thai treats include the steak salad — crisp greens with a lavish pile of fragrant herbs, topped with thinly sliced medium-rare sirloin and dressed with a chili-lime vinaigrette — and pad see ew, a beef and fried noodle number loaded with egg, Chinese broccoli, and plenty of Ophaso’s sweet-and-salty soy sauce.
But for every high note, there’s a dish that pricks Chew Man Chu’s party balloon. Basic vegetarian options, including the Vietnamese spring roll and the steamed veggie dumplings, were bland where they should have had zest, doughy where they should have been delicate, and greasy where they should have been crisp. Oxtail soup dumplings are nothing of the sort; the dough encases a too-tightly-compressed wad of meat instead of the luscious gush of soup that’s expected.