Chao Chao, Sandy Hook
Chao Chao ★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
When it comes to food sophistication, there are no hinterlands anymore, culinary terms and exotic ingredients are common parlance and sushi is the new pizza. Discriminating gourmets live, work, cook, and would like to dine out, in every nook and cranny of the state. Resourceful chefs and restaurateurs are moving out to meet the demand. In short, country dining is heating up, and Chao Chao in Sandy Hook is an exciting example.
From the outside it looks like what it is, a square brick building beside a rushing stream, typical of turn-of-the-century Connecticut mill towns. Step inside and you’re in an East-meets-West fantasy, black lacquer and chopsticks, a pressed-tin ceiling and shimmery gauze curtains falling like shafts of sunlight between tables. Unfortunately, charm flies out the window when we spot a large flat-screen TV in the dining room.
There are two full menus, a sushi menu and a New American menu. We see at once that the only way to do justice to the sushi menu (which lists 62 options) is to return and make a meal of it. The New American menu offers small plates and entrées and is studded with the unexpected.
Swiss raclette, for example. It’s been years since we’ve seen that particular dish on a menu, and then only in a Swiss or Bavarian restaurant. Here it’s a small plate. We have to have it, and are delighted to find that it’s totally traditional and totally delicious, from the sea of melted cheese and fingerling potatoes to the requisite garnish of tiny cornichons.
From the sushi menu, we choose one of Chao Chao’s signature creations, narudo makimono, a beautifully made roll of eel and avocado wrapped in cucumber with eel sauce. It’s fresh in the mouth and to the eye—which, when it comes to sushi, says it all.
Equally fresh and attractive is king crab salad, chunks of crab and cucumber pressed into a ramekin and turned out to form a short tower on the plate. A thin layer of Asian-spiced guacamole crowns the dish. For me there is too much cucumber in the mix, but it is easy to push aside so that the crab’s delicate flavor shines through.
An order of smoked salmon consists of strips of salmon and cucumber cut so that they’re exactly the same size, lined up on the plate with the precision of Mondrian. This is elegant simplicity that tastes as good as it looks.
Bill, who’s skipped lunch on this day, opts for the heftiest entrée on offer, a 10-ounce pork chop, seared and gilded with a champagne-cider demiglace. Nicely marbled, juicy and tender, the chop is surrounded by roasted potatoes, both purple and white, baby carrots and caramelized apples—a lot of food, but if you’re in the mood it should hit the spot.
Chao Chao’s version of surf and turf, fancifully entitled “From Land to Shining Sea,” suits my mood perfectly: a petite filet mignon, medium-rare, and a lobster tail and claw served out of the shell. The tail meat is chewy to the point of being tough, but it’s so flavorful we almost don’t mind. The claw, however, is a luscious little morsel prepared tempura-style, encased in a film of golden crispness and served piping hot.
Tempura is done exceptionally well here. Quite of a few of our dishes are garnished with slender stalks of tempura asparagus. One bite and we are all munching away happily. Edible decoration has much to recommend it—as does flash-frying expertise.
Chao Chao probably does stir-fry equally well, but “Prawns Bali Style” goes awry. “Large shrimp stir-fried with vegetables,” the menu says. No mention of a preponderance of peppers—a lot of them hot—which mask the delicate flavor of the shrimp, the other vegetables and even the Thai ginger sauce. Back to the drawing board for this one.
Very much in the modern mode, Chao Chao goes retro now and then, retrieving some old-fashioned pleasures. A half roast chicken (a bit dry and mealy) is laved with its own cooking juices, tasting blissfully of itself and a hint of rosemary. Alongside there’s a dollop of fresh tomato confit and some wonderfully creamy polenta.
Desserts are worth having here—pretty as a picture and almost as interesting as what went before, although on the page they sound rather run-of-the-mill. Apple tart, for instance, paves a small plate as well as the pyramid of pastry in the center with paper-thin slices of apple, all glistening with glaze and luxuriating in the company of cinnamon ice cream. Profiteroles are an equally elaborate creation involving ice cream and a shot glass of chocolate sauce so intense it threatens intoxication by inhalation. A chocolate tart, blessed with the same Valrhona chocolate, is slightly less successful, marred by a tasteless, tough crust. Crème brûlée, however, is creamy perfection, with a crisp film brittle as glass.
Chao Chao is new. Reports of spotty service are to be expected. And they’re out there. (Nothing goes away on the Web.) But tonight, we have no such problems. Our waiter is knowledgeable and competent.
Chao Chao is more than the room we’re in. There’s a rambling outdoor deck overlooking the rushing Pootatuck, a small, cozy bar with tangerine-colored walls, and upstairs a large room for overflow and private parties.
And for all you wordsmiths: Chao Chao is not a misspelling of Ciao Ciao, Italian for hello and goodbye. It’s the name of one of the owners, Elaine Chao. Steve Garrett co-owns. Ciao, Chao, we shall return.
1 Glen Rd., Sandy Hook (203/364-9393)
Open Sunday through Thursday 12 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: small plates $8 to $11, entrées $16 to $30, desserts $6 to $9.Chao Chao, Sandy Hook