Chow Down

Birmingham's Chen Chow serves some big helpings of the exotic

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An employee prepares sushi behind the sushi bar. Chen Chow offers 31 kinds of sushl rolls and several choices of sashimi.
Photograph by Joe Vaughn

I think we’re entering the opium den,” a member of our party says as we’re led through a low, rounded arch flanked by abstract wood cutouts that look vaguely like flying dragons.

Inside the dining room of Chen Chow Brasserie in Birmingham, our eyes adjust to the low light as we are seated in a half-moon shaped banquette inside what looks like one of those large wild-animal market cages you’d see in old movies about Asia, the ones selling a snow leopard or some captured maiden as the Indiana Jones-type saunters by.

Above our round table hangs a huge cylindrical rice-paper shade, a bit of extravagance considering the tiny wattage emitted from the light within. The interior of the dining room is soft and dimly lighted, so much so that we ask for a flashlight to read the menu. Without missing a beat, our waiter obliges. This must be a routine request here.

The dining room is built on two levels. The center is a raised platform with more circular booths (but without the cages), and from the ceiling is suspended a massive circular bronze cutout, the Chinese symbol for longevity or “shou.” Probably a good idea, since the previous occupant was the short-lived Pampas, a Brazilian concept that went back south. Chen Chow is the creation of John Janviriya, the same designer-owner who did Crave in Dearborn, Mélange in Ann Arbor, and Mosaic in Greektown.

A pleasant, soft, urban jazzy sound is bouncing around the room, a kind of melodic techno-meets-disco blend of synthetic music. When it ends, Madonna suddenly takes over.

The crowd is also a blend of the middle-age curious looking out of place, skinny young blondes, and dudes in two-day beards, squared-up eyewear, polyester, and spiked hair. They awkwardly slurp weird-colored martinis, though they have no idea how or where to hold the glass.

Chen Chow is gorgeous, sexy, and sleek, and about as buffed as the tanned and oiled legs hanging out at its stunning onyx bar, which is illuminated from underneath so that it glows upward from inside. This is a must-see place for a drink, at the very least.

The feel is exotic and super-hip Asian, the kind of place that suggests it’s picked off from the modern Shanghai, China’s new westernized scene. And a wine list that includes a selection of assorted liquor available for $200 to $250 a bottle just enhances the late-night club atmosphere.

Despite being a theme restaurant with a broad “fusion” menu targeted to the groove of youth, Chen Chow does indeed have a pulse and a brain.

In addition to its hot look, it serves pretty good food, with a few exceptions. And the service is generally good and helpful.

On our first visit, our waiter advised us not to order two dishes, which we then did on the second visit. He was right.

On the second visit, however, we ordered a bottle of rosé from the south of France from another waiter. What arrived at the table without explanation was a completely different wine.

“That’s not what I ordered,” I said.

“Well, it is, actually,” he replied. “It’s just that it was misspelled on the wine list.” Huh? The wine he brought wasn’t even from the same winery or province! OK, so despite the annoyance, the wine turned out to be all right. But why do that?

The chef is Robert Courser, who trained at Wash-tenaw Community College and the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College. He was also sous-chef at Opus One and Seldom Blues downtown. Altogether, we tried 23 dishes during our visits.

The menu is a little schizophrenic. It leans very heavily into Japanese food with 30 different nigiri (raw fish on rice), several choices of sashimi and sashimi platters (raw fish served with shaved vegetable and sauces,) and 31 different sushi rolls. We found those that we tried uninspired and mechanical. If the Japanese side is consistent, it’s because of an imbalance between too large, starchy rice portions and tiny portions of fish. They lack that combination of punch and delicacy, although the presentations do have a lot of eye appeal. Simply put: There are better places for sushi.

What was tremendously better was the regular menu.

For example, the Chicken Shou, a main course, was the success of the evening: a moist, flavorful free-range chicken breast fried in a tempura batter and served with a slightly kicky, slightly sweet plummy sauce along with stir-fried Asian cabbage and greens that had a hint of lemongrass. Absolutely delightful.

The same could be said for a huge first course of rock shrimp tempura, served in a rectangular white bowl and so plentiful that it could easily have been a main course. The shrimp coating had a slight crunch to it, and the accompanying sauce was almost like a slightly spiced creamy mousseline, a perfect pairing.

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