The Vittles Kingdom
If the anonymous author in The Quotable Cook is correct and it's true that "The hostess must be like the duck -- calm and unruffled on the surface, and paddling like hell underneath," then we need to turn the hostess at Gary Woo Asian Bistro upside down. As it stands now, she's churning so furiously above the surface that she's more of a fountain, spraying everywhere at once.
As an example, take my recent experience on a busy Saturday evening. We'd arrived right on time for our 8 p.m. reservation at this ten-week-old, Chinatown-style eatery, though we were the first in our party to do so. But instead of being asked whether we'd prefer to wait for the rest of our party at the table or at the bar, we were bluntly informed that we wouldn't be seated until everyone had shown up. When the others walked in five minutes later, however, we still weren't brought to our table. Granted, the place was jammed, walk-ins vying with reservations for the right to down some exceptionally meaty, caramelized spareribs. But let's not pretend this upscale Chinese eatery, with its deep red walls and polished black accents, is a bagel deli. If our table isn't ready, say so.
We watched the hostess attempt to cover herself again when a customer who had been waiting for a while approached the desk to ask when he'd finally be seated. She dismissed him, saying that he'd missed his turn because when she called him he didn't show up.
"But I told you I was going to the bar, and that's where I've been the entire time."
"I went to the bar," she insisted. "I didn't see you."
"But how could you miss me? You know me -- I'm in here every other day!"
"Yes, of course I know you. And I'm telling you I went to the bar and you weren't there."
Turns out, of course, that the guy's a regular, acquainted with proprietors Gary Woo and Sam Schmidt, as well as the hostess and the rest of the staff. The real issue, though, is not the customer's status but the response of the hostess. She erred for a third time when she led us, a party of six, to two tables for two -- of varying heights -- that had been pushed together. Those of us who wound up sitting in the middle were confronted with a plate set at a rather alarming 30-degree angle. (Imagine soup!) Next to us, a round table for six was empty. But when we asked if we could move, she replied, "I don't think so."
We were just beginning to argue when Schmidt happened by and saved the situation, moving us neatly and efficiently to the appropriate table. Perhaps he can pass on some of his savoir-faire not only to the hostess but to the waitstaff, which is generally brusque and slow -- we had to request items like extra plates or utensils three times before we received them. When we asked for a description of "splendid fish soup," the waiter couldn't provide it; indeed, he didn't even know the kitchen was out of it until we tried to order it. At no time did he describe for us any of the specials, which we spotted listed on a blackboard as we were leaving.
In a Chinese bistro like Gary Woo's, such service is disappointingly detrimental and tends to overshadow the truly excellent fare. Woo originally opened up one of my favorite places, China Dumpling in Boynton Beach, with chefs he imported from New York City's Chinatown. He's left China Dumpling but kept his focus, replicating the restaurant in a strip mall in Boca Raton and once again stocking his kitchen with Chinatowners. The results are savory and authentic, starting with the bowl of fried noodles and duck sauce that arrive at the table with the menus. The wide, flat noodles were a bit greasy, as was the roast duck spring roll, but both were obviously freshly prepared and flavorful.
Woo's offers five types of egg and spring rolls, actually, along with about eight different dumplings. Vegetarians will be delighted with the pan-seared, nonmeat version, which tasted like moo shu vegetable encased in a light, crisp dough. In fact, the vegetable-inclined can dine well here, starting with sesame cold noodles, spinach-egg noodles, and carrot slivers coated with a peanut sauce that had been thinned a little too much with vinegar for some tastes. Vegetarian main courses range from spinach and Napa cabbage with scallion soy sauce to eggplant and mushrooms in garlic sauce; vegetables are plentiful in general in meat dishes as well. For instance, the delicious "eight precious," an assortment of scallops, shrimp, pork, chicken, and vegetables over braised duck, offered crunchy broccoli, bok choy, baby corn, and water chestnuts along with the expertly stir-fried seafood. Underneath the topping, the braised duck was juicy and rich, tender but not fatty.
"Sa cha eggplant and chicken casserole" is also a stunning choice for folks who like balanced diets. Served in a hot pot at the table, the chicken was complemented by an array of plump Japanese eggplants the size of cocktail avocados, the flesh separating easily from the soft, purple skins.
Some entrées, like the Grand Marnier prawns, depend upon the main ingredient. The jumbo shrimp, which had a lovely, almost snappy texture, had been dressed with mayonnaise and surrounded by addictive honey-glazed walnuts. This type of simple preparation emphasizes the quality of the seafood, as did a dish of beef with spiced black beans. Stir-fried with a colorful mélange of peppers, the beef was top-notch, and the black soybean sauce was neither salty nor spare. But the platter could have used a bit more piquancy, given that the dish is billed as spicy.
The kitchen goes to pretty lengths when it comes to dessert. Rather than just serve the usual ice cream in a bowl, Gary Woo Asian Bistro provides orange sorbet in hollowed-out, frozen oranges and pineapple sorbet wedged into pineapple quarters. Take that extra effort and move it to the front of the house, where the hostess is all-too-flappable and the servers all-too-invisible and the course of Gary Woo could indeed resemble that of a duck's -- in which case, I will gladly make way.
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