If Chinese cuisine has been relegated to buffet lines or commandeered by the American General Tso and his friends, what's a Chinese restaurateur to do? After all, the Asian food of the moment is clearly sushi, made better when served in a pumped-up environment. Should the restaurateur forgo the trickle of hoisin sweetness? The recreation of a mysterious yet whimsical, exclusively Chinese food venue?
Restaurateur John Chen seems to have figured Charlotte out. He serves sushi in energetic settings, but keeps around other popular Asian dishes -- maybe even a Chinese dish or two. Chen belongs to a family of shrewd restaurateurs who came to Charlotte via Hong Kong from Fujo, on China's east coast. In 1993, his dad Chun Chen delved into the competitive food court business when he opened Manchu Wok at the SouthPark Mall. Owning an eatery in a food court is cutthroat. However, astute owners can instantly see where potential customers eat and, if independently owned, become agile enough to redefine the menu for the audience.
After selling Manchu Wok, the family opened and sold a number of Asian-styled restaurants. Currently, Chun Chen owns Chen's Bistro in the University area, while brother Andy Chen owns Koishi (nee Koi) in Cotswold and Room 112 Modern Asian Cuisine + Sushi Lounge downtown. John Chen has Fujo Bistro Asian Fusion & Japanese Sushi downtown, Jade Asian Fusion and Sushi Bar in Ballantyne, Ginbu 401 in Myers Park and, last October, he opened the 100-seat Room 18 Asian & Sushi Bar in Blakeney.
The neighborhood crowd is at Room 18. Families with young children in tow gather at the tables while couples head toward the large sushi bar and regular bar area in the front. One group sang "Happy Birthday" as a waiter delivered a lit candle cupcake from neighboring SAS Cupcakes. Room 18 is not luxuriously appointed -- a cloister of light bulbs acts as a chandelier while odd electrical wiring hangs beside the overhead pendants at the bar -- but it is comfortable. The dining room has muted red tones while crossbeams resemble chopsticks.
Given Room 18's pleasant neighborly scale, the food is better than you would expect. The menu is generous and gently priced to turn first-timers into regulars. Appetizers are divided by temperature and as varied as nachos (are these Asian now?) with spicy guacamole, imitation crab with wasabi tinted tobiko, fried sweet potatoes puffs, and hamachi carpaccio. I opted for the Oyster Shooter with a shot of sake and a quail egg, but it had been eighty-sixed for the night. Good were the straightforward dumplings bathed in a perfumed sauce, which slid past the lips. However, the tempura starter made a stronger impression with its crispy tender sweet shrimp.
The entrée selection is long, and most offer a choice of protein -- chicken, beef, shrimp, scallop or fish. Red Snapper (tai) is listed on both the entrée and sushi roster: If you're into sustainable seafood, this is one fish to avoid. The teriyaki with its rumpled slices of beef is fine as teriyaki goes and notably is lightly dressed. The items on the sushi list include both raw and cooked -- which seem to be gaining popularity. While sushi aficionados may be aghast by this development, the Westernization of sushi began when avocado was first substituted for fatty fish on the original California roll. We are now in the next gen, the mayo gen, of Western sushi.
Yet the dishes I tended to like best were on the sushi roster. The baby octopus, complete with head and tentacles sprawled on a pillow of rice, stirs memories of Japan and is surprisingly appealing. The nigiri is served in twosomes with the hamachi taking star billing. The specialty roll Green Monster has jacked flavors with lettuce, avocado, crispy soft-shell crab, and a bite-you-back sauce.
The wine list is full of affordable bottles from a variety of regions; however, some of the obvious Asian pairing wines are missing -- New Zealand savvies, for example. The Champagne list is also too brief and meant more for celebrations than for food matching. However, Room 18 has long lists for sakes and beers. Dinner entrée prices range from $7 for a bowl of udon to $16.95 for a dish with scallops. Sushi prices range from $5 for a basic roll to $12 for a signature roll.
John Chen knows the palate of Charlotte -- even to the variation among neighborhoods -- and designs his menus accordingly. His range of dishes on the menu of Room 18 includes a traditional Japanese rice omelette and a European-styled fried calamari. But Chen is following the adage of giving people what they want (ala the film Big Night). And who in this business environment can blame him? Besides, don't we all like -- and even prefer -- Sriracha mayo sauce?
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