FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Raymond Chau, chef/owner of XO Seafood Restaurant, holds two of his specialties -- Mongolian Lamb Ribs, left, and Assorted Seafood with XO Chili Sauce.
XO offers a kiss of bold flavor
RESTAURATEUR Raymond Chau grew up in Hong Kong and arrived in Hawaii in pursuit of a better life, opening several restaurants and finding a mix of hits and misses with restaurants such as Won Kee, Chiu Chau, A-1 Steakhouse, and Raymond Chau's Restaurant. Just as fortunes of businesses wax and wane, so do fortunes of nations, and two years ago he felt China's pull.
"Everything's booming there," he said. "I just wanted to try my luck."
In Zhuhai, north of Macao and just across the bay from Hong Kong, he opened two restaurants, Hawaii Cafe -- named for his adopted home -- and Victoria Bar & Grill -- named after his daughter and Hong Kong's famous harbor, but discovered he missed Hawaii.
Leaving his China restaurants in the care of his partners, he's back with yet another endeavor, XO Seafood Restaurant, across Kapiolani Boulevard from the Hawai'i Convention Center.
I've always believed that local restaurateurs have a tendency to sweeten, take the spice out of dishes and tone down herbal flavors of ethnic cuisines to cater to a middle-of-the-road palate. But straight from China, Chau packs XO's dishes with plenty of zest and zing. It may not be for those with timid palates but it's definitely an exciting addition to our Chinese restaurant scene. I'm hoping these dishes don't get watered down over time.
Foremost is the namesake XO -- synonymous with excellence, or to some, a kiss -- sauce, which covers everything from rib-eye steak that is served pre-sliced, pupu-style ($18), to a popular dish of assorted shellfish served on funn noodles ($16).
Contrary to some expectations, due to the XO designation generally associated with cognac and other fine liquor, the sauce doesn't contain alcohol. Those with seafood allergies would probably steer clear of any seafood restaurant, but just to be clear, the sauce's main ingredients are an intense combo of dried shrimp, scallops, fish and ham. All this is mixed with an equally potent mix of garlic, chilies and onion for one powerful and addictive sauce. Try it with the pan-fried shrimp ($12) or prawns ($18) and you'll see.
XO'S MENU is as vast as any Chinese restaurant menu, but I didn't get past the first two pages before ordering. Everything up front looked so delicious.
On the next two pages you'll find such popular dishes as Chau's famous clams with black bean sauce ($10), kung pao chicken ($8), steamed pork hash topped with two halved salty egg yolks ($7), and Peking duck ($28 whole, requires one-day advance notice). No honey-walnut shrimp though, which developed a huge following during the time Chau was overseas.
A restaurateur doesn't have to be in Hawaii long before absorbing some Pacific Rim inspiration, and this is embodied by an offering of Ying Yang Poke, a fresh dice of salmon and slices of snapper tossed with soy sauce, green onions and enough sliced onions to make a man cry.
The poke is a starter, like the won tons ($10) served with a sweet-sour sauce made from a recipe Chau describes as being 100 years old. Soaking in the sauce are slices of duck, shrimp and char siu, but this dish is only for those who really love foods drenched in the treacly red sauce. I'd pass on this and move on to more savory main courses of Dungeness crab ($28; $35 for lobster) cooked in a thin, fiery Southeast Asian curry sauce, also inspired by Chau's travels, and a dish of Mongolian lamb ribs ($13) that is bound to find imitators. The ribs are basted in a hoisin-based barbecue sauce and accented with rosemary.
All this rich food cries out for balance in the form of a simple dish of choi sum and garlic. Desserts of almond float, tapioca and tiramisu also await, but a decadent feast has a way of squelching cravings.
It's good to see Chau back in top form. Bring on the welcoming committee.