By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
I waited, knowing from experience that the flailing had just begun. And sure enough, Chi Bistro soon shifted again, getting rid of weekday lunches and late-night hours and now claiming that it served New American cuisine -- a descriptor both ubiquitous and totally meaningless, since it never really stood for anything when it was first introduced and certainly doesn't today.
But while the name changed, the menu at Chi Bistro stayed the same. Thai chicken wings and lemongrass calamari. Alaskan halibut served over Shanghai ratatouille with homemade spaetzle. Meats rubbed in Kona coffee or shiitake powder, then buried under competing floods of chutneys, demis and glazes. A Vietnamese noodle bowl. Duck breast brushed with pomegranate syrup served over linguine Alfredo with "carrot paint." I didn't know what the hell carrot paint was, but I wasn't about to order the dish just to find out -- because then I would've had to eat duck glazed in a bittersweet fruit syrup served over a cheesy white sauce...which was wrong in so many ways that I couldn't begin to count them.
Still, I went back. A few weeks ago, I had French-press coffee brought to the table in a beautiful service, then ate the world's most inedible chicken lettuce wrap, with whole-leaf romaine so shiny it reflected the accent lights. It was that shiny because it was coated with a thick shellac of food-grade wax. The chopped, smoked chicken tasted like something rescued from a fatal house fire, the hot-and-sour peanut sauce like a culinary-school experiment gone terribly wrong. But the lobster and avocado spring rolls were surprisingly good -- real chunks of lobster, their fresh, clean taste accented by the buttery softness of the avocado. And the sweet-potato brûlée was excellent, too, rich with butter and cream and natural sugar, then further sweetened by a properly torched sugar crust.
Chicken wings: $6.50
Lobster and avocado spring rolls: $8.50
Lemongrass calamari: $9
Lettuce wrap: $7
Onion soup: $6
Pomegranate duck fettuccine: $18
Kona pork chop: $21
Sweet-potato brûlée: $5.95
Not everything at Chi Bistro is terrible. Poorly conceived, terrifyingly overwrought and about as delicately understated as a boot in the nuts, yes. But some of it tastes okay. Oddly, the most overtly creative ideas are tucked away on the soup-and-salad section of the menu: a Pacific Rim Caesar, and onion soup made with a fresh and interesting mix of white and yellow, sweet and bitter onions, all caramelized together and hit with a perfect balancing note of earthy leek and smoked Swiss cheese.
I once had a very good chef tell me the secret -- the only secret there is -- to writing a successful menu, running a successful kitchen and thereby living a happy life. The secret is simple: You've got to love something.
It doesn't matter what. Love mussels. Love your grandmother's recipe for puttanesca. Love lemongrass, even. But you have to love something. There must be something you have an unreasonable and maddening passion for, and it must go on your menu. Everything else will be shaped by this thing, influenced by it, flavored by it. And this one cherished thing, your love, will keep you honest. Your love will keep you pure. It will keep you anchored, prevent you from flying off in a hundred different directions and making a fool of yourself.
At Chi Bistro, there's no love. There's no anchor. This kitchen has plenty of problems -- including, but not by any means limited to, a lack of identity, a menu that showcases little beyond the embarrassing mistakes and cultural missteps of a thousand menus gone before, and a postmodern geographical schizophrenia that no amount of lithium could ever fix -- but at the root of them all is the sense that no one here is doing anything out of love. They're serving reflex food, copies of copies of copies, sadly loyal to a style that survives today only through the cowardice of the unadventurous.