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Red Violet's New Modern Chinese Menu
I was invited to partake in Red Violet’s media dinner to introduce their new menu of modern Chinese fare on August 14, 2012, and I’m glad I was.
Red Violet is on the corner of Hubbard and LaSalle, just a block from Merchandise Mart so it’s convenient for Loop workers, “L” riders, and everyone else in Chicago. Truly. If you must drive there’s a multi-level parking structure less than a block away. Get there, because the food is well worth it.
We met first in the bar/lounge where we were offered our choice of three cocktails, the saki blossom, which was garnished with the tiniest of dried rose buds, the ginger mojito that had the usual muddled mint of a mojito with the addition of muddled ginger and a ginger slice on the glass, and the lychee mimosa that came with a bonus lychee. All of the cocktails were a bit on the sweet side, which I think was intended to be a foil to the sometimes-spicy food at Red Violet.
The entire restaurant – bar/lounge, dining room, and basement dining area – were decorated in a contemporary Oriental fashion. Having spent time in Southeast Asia, I recognized some imagery as well as some seemingly – to the Western eye – contradictory motifs such as ancient Buddah depictions next to ultra-modern, often uncomfortable-looking (but not in practice) furniture. I appreciated and enjoyed the surroundings at Red Violet, which can be seen in the photo gallery.
While still in the bar, we were served starters. I was lucky enough to have placed myself where I was served the starters first. This made for lovely photo opportunities that unfortunately were squandered on this “photographer” who didn’t realize the camera she had was on a setting that made for horribly out-of-focus photos. I assure you, dear readers, that the starters as well as the other dishes were lovely. Please see the accompanying photo gallery for proof.
Raw garden vegetables served with miso mayo were presented in shot glasses so we could see the contrast of red radish with (edible, I promise) greens attached, against white daikon, red leaf lettuce, and green beans. Taro served as the crunchy shells containing very generous portions of tuna tartare for the tuna tacos, which were topped with avocado and pea sprouts. The hamachi carpaccio with ginger, chive, Chinese vinegar, and crisp fried shallot was a light, refreshing bite of yum.
After we were shown to the dining room Chef Gene Koto told us about the menu. His specialty, as demonstrated recently at Japonais, is contemporary Japanese food, but as much of Asia’s food has been influenced by Chinese cuisine Chef Koto felt he could work with traditionally Chinese ingredients. His goal was to serve food Americans could recognize as Chinese but without the heaviness we associate with the typical take-out Chinese restaurants.
The first course was a diver scallop salad and tea smoked duck breast. The scallops were poached and thinly latitudinally sliced, as was the accompanying zucchini. It was fresh and light and quite good.
The duck breast was … duck. I love, love, love duck. Though I am an avid home cook, I have never dared to make duck so it is one of my go-to dishes when dining out. Chef Koto’s duck breast was moist, with the thinnest layer of flavorful fat. One of the hallmarks of duck breast in most restaurants is a layer of crispy, fatty skin, which was not present in this dish, I think for the better; the skin would have distracted from the perfectly medium rare meat on display.
It was at this point that I could have walked away from the table quite happy, with tasty starters and first course items – along with some cocktails – in my belly. But we were to have five more courses. I steeled myself for the onslaught.
The second course was a trio of appetizers, calamari, jiaozi, and steam bun. As Chef Koto told us, the calamari was like no other calamari we had ever tasted. Instead of those spindly legs and rings, the calamari served us was dense and meaty, but not at all chewy. After it was fried it was tossed in a sweet and spicy soy glaze to delicious result.
The jiaozi was basically a pot sticker. The skin was thinner than most pot stickers and the xo sauce was quite good, but it was basically a dumpling filled with ground pork. It was tasty but not nearly as exciting as the calamari.
The steam bun was both tasty and exciting. The soy braised pork belly it contained was terrifically fatty. In this case “fatty” is not at all a bad thing; the fat was not rubbery and gross. The pork belly’s fat was gooey and melty and quite good.
It was a close tie between the appetizers and desserts for my favorite course. But before we tasted the desserts there were three more courses.
We’ve all had wonton soup at Chinese take-out places. It’s always a chickeny broth with a bunch of wontons filled with a pork or a pork and shrimp filling, many of which fall apart. Red Violet’s wonton soup was not that – at all.
Red Violet’s wonton soup is served in small porcelain bowls held over tea light-containing incense burner-like vessels. The overall effect is delightful. With just two wontons, some mushrooms, and fried ginger, the soup had a lot of work to do. The broth, which Chef Koto said was made with ham, pork, and chicken, was absolutely dreamy. The duck wontons were delicate and rich.
The most visually striking dish was the fish course. Whole grilled, steamed, or fried fish is a common dish in Asia and many traditional Chinese restaurants in the West, but Westerners are often put off by dealing with whole fishes. Chef Koto addressed this by flash frying chunks of bass and then dressing them with pepper sauce, mushrooms, and pea sprouts. The fish carcass – sans flesh – was also flash fried, into a wonderful concave “dish” that contained the edible parts of loup de mare.
The most traditionally Chinese dishes were contained in the final savory course. Chicken – which I never order at restaurants since I can make it myself in about 1,000 different ways – was served gift wrapped within cellophane. The presentation for the salt-steamed chicken and shitake mushroom with ginger scallion and black bean sauce was lovely, and the chicken was deliciously moist, but in the end it was just chicken.
The filet mignon was also deliciously moist, and tender – really, I barely had to chew the meat. It was a high-end version of any Chinese wok-cooked beef dish in a cornstarch-thickened sauce – what Red Violet calls spicy soy glaze. What set it apart was its presentation in a potato basket – a fried webbed bowl of potato puree. The edges of the basket were crispy while the parts of the basket that came into contact with the spicy soy glaze were gooey and chewy.
None of the savory dishes were particularly spicy; each dish was subdued, I think in an attempt to let the high-quality ingredients do the work of stimulating the palate.
Chef Kato mentioned one of his foci was desserts since the average Westerner doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with Chinese desserts. We were served three desserts, tea & doughnuts, almond panna cotta, and chocolate symphony. All were dreamy.
The doughnuts were fried balls of dough, like proper doughnuts, with the addition of white chocolate-lychee filling. They were served with “tea,” black tea semifreddo, for dipping. For those of you who don’t like dessert because it’s too sweet, this is the dessert for you. Neither the doughnuts nor the semifreddo were cloyingly sweet; both were subtle, rich, and satisfying.
The almond panna cotta was served with mango. It was just the right amount of dessert – just two bites or so – for anyone who’s afraid to order dessert. As someone who likes almonds but cannot stand amaretto flavor – which most almond desserts tend to use – I appreciated the use of the light flavor of almond milk as the base for the panna cotta.
Finally, we were served the chocolate symphony. At first glance it appeared to be a bowl covered with a layer of hard chocolate garnished with gold leaf. And it was, until our servers – each one personable and professional and charming – poured hot chocolate sauce over the hard chocolate. The hot sauce melted the cold chocolate layer, incorporated the gold leaf, and dripped everything down into the chestnut mousse. I was quite full at that point, but I still had trouble stopping myself from eating the whole dessert.
Red Violet was delightful, and I’m not just saying that because the drinks were plentiful and free, and because the company – fellow food and lifestyle website writers – were a riot. But we did have the best conversations about movies, parties, food, and drink …. I would definitely like to return to Red Violet for a tasty meal.