Have you ever felt like you totally understand your tastes, and nothing a restaurant is going to dish out will change your mind? Well I have, and the recently opened Chao Bistro on Capital Hill (1200 E. Pike) took me by surprise on a number of delicious dishes.
To set the stage, I was participating in the first local gathering of Tastecasting, an event where restaurants host a complimentary menu tasting for a small group (10-15) of active social media enthusiasts. In return, the group broadcasts their experiences and opinions to their followers, fans and connections via social media.
So we gathered on a cold, windy, rainy Seattle evening (what a shock!) to take a spin through the menu at Chao and share our opinions. What I “thought” I knew about my tastes would be challenged – namely, I don’t drink (or like) sake, I like my calamari in little “rings and legs”, spam is to be avoided at all costs, and anything with gravy in the morning is to be avoided. And you can guess what I found on the generous 17-item tasting menu – all of the above!
We tasted the menu in three sections – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was pleasantly surprised by the breakfast items (served Sat-Sun, 8am-3pm) and would definitely return for most of the dinner items, either during regular hours (6-11 pm) or the incredibly well-priced happy hours (3-7pm, 11pm-1am).
As for breakfast, gravy is not something high on my list – nor is anything with spam! Oh but I was wrong. The Island Fried Rice was a beautifully balanced salty-savory dish, with two over-easy eggs atop a mound of spam-speckled fried rice. Uh oh, spam. Really?? But it was great, and went well with the portuguese sausage, barbecued pork, onion and carrots, with a nice touch of sesame oil.
And the gravy? Whoa, it came slathered over the Chicken Fried Steak, a mountainous 11-ounce ground beef steak, atop a bed of hash browns. Yowsa, that could feed a whole tableful of hungover diners, and the rumor is that only one person has ever finished the whole plate by himself. I believe it, since the plate easily served 5-6 of us, and we lapped up the gravy, speckled with bacon and sausage, like nobody’s business. So, two myths down – spam is actually good, and gravy works for breakfast. Who knew?
In the dinner segment, we tried 11 different dishes and it gave my palate a workout! There were some great Pan-Asian takes on traditional dishes, such as the Miso Cream Fettuccine (with chicken or salmon), the Wasabi Caesar Salad (a unanimous favorite with all 10 of our diners!) and a great Chao Salad with candied walnuts, Asian pear slices and lychee vinaigrette.
But the three dishes that really stood out for me were the Calamari, Lemongrass Crab Cakes and Whole Fried Chicken. As previously mentioned, I like my calamari in little fried “rings and legs”, as you would find in most restaurants – but I have a new favorite! This dish delivered perfect little strips of solid calamari, cut from a full steak, breaded in panko, chili powder and orange peel and fried quickly and perfectly. It was served with a lemon ginger aioli that was a perfect accent, and I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to eat “rings and legs” again – this is the new standard in calamari for me!
Note: A special offering from Tastecasting: You can try a free calamari appetizer with dinner and a minimum $15 purchase! It’s good until Nov 30 and you just need to mention you read about them on Tastecasting!
The Lemongrass Crab Cakes were a meaty, crunchy blend of crab, panko, lemongrass, coconut, red peppers and shallots, served with the same lemon ginger aioli (above) and a nice sweet chili mango sauce. Perfect!
And the whole fried chicken, you might wonder, what’s the big deal with that? Well, it was beautifully served on a platter with small dishes of pickled daikon, salt & pepper, and sweet chili sauce, and the skin was a perfectly crispy crackly delicious finish. And it’s not just a Sunday comfort food dinner – the owners related that in Korea when people go out drinking, this style of chicken is what they would order to eat while they are imbibing. Hmm, so much for bad nachos and wings, like they serve at most bars late-night! This bird was just $25 and would easily serve 3-4 hungry (and buzzed!) diners well, and it was fabulous.
And what about the fourth food myth – that I don’t like sake? Well I don’t – and I passed on the first three samples that were served with dinner. More for everyone else, right? But then came that aroma – enticing sweet crisp fresh – that arrived before the cup even hit the table. Wow, I thought – but I don’t drink that. Bummer. But the aroma prevailed, I tasted the lovely green apple sake and my mind is forever changed! I think it could be a very dangerous drink for me, you have been warned…
We tried many more excellent dishes – waffle cut sweet potato fries, wok-seared edamame, 12th Ave french dip, ahi trio, etc. and you really can’t go wrong with any of the choices. In fact, if I lived closer to Chao, I’d be in serious danger of eating several times a week here, thanks to the great variety in the menu. Many thanks to co-owner Tony, manager Paula and Chef Kevin for a fantastic evening.
And now, back to the drawing board for my “food myths” – I think I need to work on a couple new ones…can’t wait for the next Tastecasting event to find out what they will be!
Chao Bistro & Bar, 1200 E Pike, Seattle, 206-324-1010 www.chaobistro.com