Nude Party: Just one surprise at Chin's Kahala
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Chin's Kahala was a surprise.
It moved into the old Tony Roma's location on Wai'alae Avenue so quietly that I was surprised to hear it had been open four months.
The place looks so lovely — new, more subtle colors; plush banquettes; rosewood cases displaying porcelain ware; flower arrangements and artwork — I predicted a hefty tab. Boy was that a false impression. Dinner for a party of three, with a bottle of wine, a couple of beers, four dishes and ample leftovers, came to $100.
The service during two visits was the best I've ever had in a Chinese restaurant. The servers are polite, smiling and well-trained, with good language skills. They neither interrupted us when we were talking, nor disappeared when we most needed them. Again, unexpected.
At dinner one Wednesday night, it was a little disconcerting to realize that there was more Cantonese and Mandarin being spoken around us than English — in Kahala? Later, manager Allan Tam said O'ahu's Chinese community does just as the trendy foodies do when a new restaurant opens: They flock to the place out of curiosity. But four months later, they're still coming back; the dining room/bar was buzzing with large family parties, even on a weeknight.
Finally, there was the food. It was good. Really good, not just passable or filling.
One dish recommended by Tam, plum tree beef ($12.95) — crisp but melting curlicues of beef in a slightly sweet and very rich-tasting marinade — had the three of us making little pleasure noises in the backs of our throats. Later, there was discord in my marriage when my husband realized I'd eaten the leftovers without leaving him any. (Snooze, ya lose, hon.)
Before that, we had thought the pao hu (aka hot burned pork, $12.95) was delicious — a Szechwan specialty of thin-sliced, seasoned dried pork, stir-fried and garnished with ground peanuts, fiery dried chilies and orange wedges. I'd order pao hu again, but plum tree beef is orgasmic.
We went a little wacky in ordering because there were some menu titles we couldn't resist. One such was shredded chicken with ketchup fried rice ($8.95), a Chinese-American invention, we were told. It proved to be a generous portion of fried rice, made exceptionally moist by a layer of braised or sauteed onions in a light ketchup sauce — the flavor was rather like beef tomato meets fried rice. Comfort yum.
We had wanted to begin our meal with the house specialty garlic shrimp roll wrapped with crispy mushroom ($14.95), but that wasn't available, so we took a flyer on Chin's signature shrimp roll with peach ($10.95) — a chunk of shrimp, a cube of canned peach and what we suspected was mayonnaise was asymmetrically wrapped in a won ton pi and deep-fried. This was satisfying in the way that anything deep-fried and piping hot is satisfying (and it was nice that you got eight of them), but I still want to try the garlic shrimp roll.
For a vegetable, we chose sauteed spinach with garlic ($8.95) — a large mound of emerald green flecked with minced garlic and glistening with hot oil. Another day, the sauteed Chinese broccoli with garlic ($8.95) was pleasingly tender-crisp. I'd have added more garlic, though.
At lunch with a girlfriend, it was hard to make a dent in another house specialty: the artfully presented green tea shrimp on bamboo net ($15.95) — whole, head-on, shell-on shrimp, deep fried and studded with green tea smoked until it was black and fragrant. Not to mention the spiced steamed chicken ($18.95 half, $36.95 whole), which turned out to be a cousin of the popular cold ginger chicken. But this dish is warm and redolent of Chinese five spice, with sliced, fried garlic scattered over the pieces, which are cleavered across the bone, Chinese style. The customary oil and ginger sauce — the fresh ginger grated and plentiful — was served on the side. I ended up drizzling this delicious sauce over everything. My girlfriend said she was surprised how much better the chicken was served warm.
As is customary with Chinese menus, this one is as expansive as its country of origin. The list includes the standard appetizers, soups, seafood, meats, vegetables, rice and noodles, but also hot pots, sizzling platters, signature dishes and Szechwan specialties. At lunch, there are inexpensive combo plates ($6.95-$10.95). Special gourmet menus can be arranged.
I suggest you order drinks — there's a full bar, and Tam said their purveyors are surprised at how much wine a Chinese restaurant can sell. Or sip your tea, and take ... your ... time.
Try some things you've probably never experienced before: steamed tofu fu Gian-style ($11.95), salt and pepper quail ($10.95), roast cognac pigeon ($14.95), which may have been the first time I've ever seen pigeon on a menu. I was amused to note departures from the standard, stilted titles ("steam soft tofu"), displaying a sense of humor in such specialties as Nude Party ($15.95, a shrimp dish in which the shellfish have been peeled for you, Tam explained).
The last surprise: Chin's Kahala is actually a homecoming for founder Chin Tsai. He opened his first restaurant in Honolulu in 1976 before moving to San Diego in 1984 where he started a chain that now numbers a dozen restaurants. The corporation will be opening several more restaurants in the Islands, Tam said.
Xie xie for that.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.