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Taiwanese cuisine prepared and served with excellence

Cantonese, Mandarin, Hunan, Sichuan. Most of us can give at least a cursory flavor characteristic description of these Chinese cuisines, but Taiwanese? This island cuisine is perhaps the least understood of all the Chinese cuisines. Taiwanese cuisine is an amalgamation of all the people who have settled on that island for thousands of years. Miso soup, for example, is as common in Taiwan as it is in Japan. So is seaweed salad. Surprised?

"Taiwanese style is basic, but a blend of many places. We use less oil and low sodium. Most of the dishes have a single flavor," notes restaurateur Kevin Cheng, co-owner of Tomi Restaurant in south Charlotte.

The Cheng brothers, natives of Taiwan, have been working in and owning restaurants in Charlotte for the last sixteen years. "We are a team," Kevin Cheng remarked. "I am my brother's eyes, and he (Ben) is my hands." Kevin Cheng worked in several upscale restaurants in Taiwan before arriving in Charlotte. Ben Cheng is a chef who trained "with the finest Taiwanese chefs in Tokyo," according to his brother. Chef Cheng began his career in traditional Chinese cooking at age fourteen when he apprenticed under the head chef at Ryoyen, a large well-known Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. Four years later, he returned to Taiwan to work at the Fortune Hotel as head chef. The brothers decided to search for a better life and left for the States, first working in LA. In Charlotte, the Chengs worked in several area Chinese restaurants, including the House of Hunan, the Great Wall of China and Wan Fu where Ben Cheng became head chef. In early 1995, the Chengs opened the 34-seat KoKo, Authentic Chinese Cuisine in Dilworth. They sold that restaurant last year in order to open Tomi, which is named for their mother, in December 2003.

The sleekly modest interior of Tomi, designed by William Robinson of Childrey Robinson Associates, is in Feng Shui style. A curving wall that faces the entrance deflects the winter wind away from the interior diners. The colors are soothing tones in purples and reds. Dinner plates come in clean white and the small dining area has a bare-bone, yet modern feel.

But the interior only sets the stage for the food to be the star. What makes a great Chinese restaurant, of course, are lots of tasty entrees. In this small restaurant, seating less than 50, the menu has almost two dozen entree choices: stir-fried chicken with basil sauce; Hawaiian beef in a sweet pineapple soy sauce; shrimp with lemon-lime sauce; scallops with curry; and stir-fried flank steak with shallots in a garlic sauce. Prices for dinner entrees range from $10 to $14, lunch is $6.50.

The food at Tomi is fresh and flavorful. The smooth, savory corn soup set the buzz and was quickly followed by a round of crispy bites of fried alligator simply seasoned with salt and pepper. Next up were plump pork dumplings with a smooth exterior texture and an interior hinting of a spice, which were dunked into a refreshing bath of soy and ginger.

With no exceptions the entrees exhibited a similar combination of clean flavors and classic technique. The Six-hour Pork Pot Roast is family recipe of the restaurant's namesake. The pork and vegetables are steeped in rice wine, seasoned with, according to the menu, sixteen spices, and a light soy sauce proving an entree with richness and heft typically found in other northern Chinese cuisines. Other entrees were equally remarkable. Both the seared scallops and flank steak set atop a pedestal of bright green snow peas, sweet onions, and caramelized carrots, and the extraordinary tender and crispy duckling breast slices highlighted by a spicy orange emulsion were fine choices.

The food at Tomi is not served in such quantities that to-go boxes pop up at all the tables. The amount is satisfying, but not overwhelming. And the bonus of this is having room to try their exquisite tri-flavored cake: green tea, vanilla, strawberry.

Service seems to be only noticeable when it is exceptionally bad or exceptionally good. Here it is the latter and the excellence in service is a difference that permeates the atmosphere. Taiwan may be an island, but this is not an island-paced restaurant. Kevin Cheng, and his staff, wants his customers to have a good time and enjoy their food.

Tomi presents exceptional Chinese dishes that are finely composed, precisely cooked, and taste exactly as they should. Your tastebuds will get what they came for. This is not all-you-can eat, crank it out on the buffet line Chinese food. The food is exquisitely prepared and includes many of the favorites from KoKo's, such as shrimp battered with wine and honey. If you know little of Taiwanese cuisine, an island with a 50,000-year history, the Cheng brothers can show you how 21th Century their cuisine is.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@ creativeloafing.com

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