Chi & Co Asian Restaurant is a place that represents a coming of age for the current generation of Asian migrants whose parents escaped their native soil so that their children can grow up and work on less backbreaking jobs. Ironically, kitchen work is no walk in the park either, as many parents can attest to having toiled in the steaming and boiling dens to put their children through university so that they can become doctors, accountants and lawyers.
But walk through the sliding doors of Chi & Co, just off the epicentre that is Holy Basil, and you would never think that there is much toiling to be had. Chillout lounge beats soothe your ears, incandescent lights bask the space in a warm glow and the industrial chic just invites you to sit down. This contrasts with the restaurants of yore, where there would be fluorescent lights, flimsy chairs, uneven tables and wailing music, leaving you with doubts as to whether you would make it out alive.
Selecting from the menu felt like shopping from a pristine supermarket rather than the gritty markets and I start off with the Son-In-Law Eggs. Named so because of a slight break in tradition, the crusty egg-white melded with the creamy egg yolk and sambal-inspired XO sauce. Hints of coriander and shallots pierce through the complex interplay of sweet, salty and heat amidst the crunchy bits of fried shallots and dried shrimp.
Swinging by was the Stir-Fried Mixed Mushrooms glistening in the sauce of Chinese wine, garlic oil and oyster sauce. Having caught my attention, I took a few spoonfuls of this mix of wood-eared, shiitake, enoki and shimeji mushrooms to find the sauce overly intense, overpowering all but the shiitake with its brackish might. It seems that old habits die hard and this dish was never meant to be eaten on its own but with rice, allowing the Chinese wine to shine through, leaving a subtle garlic aftertaste to linger on.
Next up was the tropical Fried Wild Barramundi Fillets with Green Apple Salad and Fried Shallots making an entrance to the table. Lush and vibrant, chunks of barramundi sat atop a mound of julienned apples and pineapples with herbs and fried shallots encrusting the peak, it was a sight to behold but not a taste to savour. Drenched in nước mắm, the salad absorbed the dressing delivering a zesty kiss followed by a knockout punch of saline. It was the same story with the deep-fried fish fillets, albeit with an almost pureed texture unlike fresh fish. Alas, rice cannot save this dish because it was never eaten with such a dish and never shall.
As my tastebuds howled in despair, I turned to Beef Me Up, looking like a yard filled with boneless Angus beef ribs smothered in a viscous tamarind and chilli sauce. It could have been the boneyard for my mouth, but it wasn’t, as hunks of flesh just tear off like strands of hair decorated with only a glaze of sauce. Crispy on the outside, it not only tastes comforting, but prevents the sauce from infusing into the meaty structure retaining its umami flavour. Cutting through was the pickled cucumber, tasting sweet and sour like that of a gherkin, refreshing my tastebuds for more Angus action. But amidst my gorging, I struggled to find any trace of spiciness despite ‘chilli’ listed as part of the sauce.
Waiting for dessert to come by, I took a sip out of my Frangelico Caipiroska, a drink I ordered with a healthy dose of scepticism given its conflicting ingredients. Hazelnut liqueur with cranberry juice and lime? Who are they trying to fool?! I scoffed. But a serious setup requires a serious challenge, and so there I was, enjoying it endlessly with its nutty undertones, and fruity body. Drinking this was akin to playing a finely tuned violin with the finesse of a virtuoso, every sip tastes like music to my ears.
At last, the Crème Caramel, the easy-going brother of the crème brûlée, arrives to the table. Clad only in sauce, the crème was firm yet silken tasting buttery and blending sublimely with the caramel sauce. Being in the shadow of chocolate is never easy, and it shows in all great caramels, with a tinge of bitter hardship in its taste. The sauce never overstaying its visit on my tastebuds is welcomed time and again until there’s nothing left of it. Simply delicieux!
Times are changing, and the era in which cold service is tolerated in an Asian restaurant has come to an end. There’s no doubt that the grimy joints of the past are being cleansed and replaced by a new generation of shiny, quirky, and cleverly decorated restaurants sans the familiar Asian accent paving the way for new interpretations of classics that their forebears had adopted from generation to generation. It’s a rebellion by these youngsters and they do so by showing the possibilities that could be, that should be, to their elders. If only they did it with more finesse, maybe their elders would start to wise up.
~ Jambon Cochon