Occasionally in the quiet of e-mail, a voice emerges. "You must try Bamboo 7," the writer urges. Bamboo 7 Asian Cuisine, which opened last March flashing all the signals of a serious try, is a small place in an archetypal strip-mall shopping center in a far corner of south Charlotte near the South Carolina line. But within its walls, this narrow, 36-seat eatery packs in everything a neighborhood restaurant should.
Owner Xiu Liu, who is expecting her second child next month, is a constant presence while her husband Xian Chen mans the kitchen. Chef Chen has done the circuit in Charlotte for the past 15 years, cooking in the now-closed, but once-popular Chinese restaurant in Dilworth, Chin Tso (now the location of Big Daddy's), and Ginger Root downtown (now the location of Buckhead Saloon) This is the couple's first restaurant.
Style abounds in this small space, but never supersedes comfort. Banquettes are paired with upholstered chairs while one sequestered nook offers romance. Children press their noses against the glass of the colorfully lit aquarium near the entrance while colors of the earth warm the interior, punctuated at times by vivid drop lights dangling over the tables. Even warmer is the quick-thaw energy of a spirited crowd: a family of four oohing and ahhing over the sizzle of a hot pot, a group of eight girlfriends sharing their dishes.
Even though Liu and Chen are native to the Chinese region south of Hong Kong, they decided to blur the Asian gastronomic line and offer an American melting pot of eastern Asian cuisines: Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Singaporean, and Chinese. But, the latter dominates the menu. This isn't that loathsome, gimmickry Asian fusion popular a decade ago; rather, Bamboo 7's menu is a roundup of popular Asian dishes crafted by an accomplished practitioner.
The menu is in English and chop sticks need to be requested. Moo Goo Gai Pan? Check. Chicken fried rice with pineapple and egg? Check? Pad Thai? Got that and Singapore noodles and teriyaki. And then there's a Cajun grouper dish and Asian pork osso buco. Huh?
Some of the Americanization of the menu is confusing. One appetizer is listed as "steamed dim sum": our server explained that the word "dim sum" means dumpling. Well, it doesn't. While this dim sum may be a dumpling -- quite a good one at that, with a gossamer wrapping and spicy sausage interior -- dim sum is an entire category of small Chinese bites typically served during the day. Curiously, another appetizer is listed as a pork or vegetable steamed dumpling.
Another starter nods to an Americanized Asian corporate chain. Chen's royal lettuce wrap starter with four leaves of iceberg and a minced chicken-and-water-chestnut mixture is more reminiscent of an app at P.F. Chang's than an ethnic eatery. Better was the silken clear broth udon soup perfumed with mirin and ginger, laced with a tangle of noodles and aided with a brace of crispy tempura shrimp, more nourishing than snuggly.
A towering carved fruit display anchored one side of a wondrous platter of stewed duck. Stewing imbued the juicy meat with an aromatic flavor while not being fatty -- which is desired for true Chinese cuisine aficionados, but not so much for most American palates. This dish was the evening standout. The curried shrimp not destined to surpass the oh-so-swell duck was performance food, yes, and delicious nevertheless, even with geographical confliction.
Bamboo 7 is not a Combo-Number-5-type eatery with cheaply made actualizations of Asian cuisine and a thrown-together wine list. Clearly Chen excels at Chinese dishes, but what is equally true, having been in Charlotte for 15 years, he knows his audience. If some of his dishes imitate various corporate Epnic (Epcot + ethnic) restaurants, it shows this couple's business acumen. Let's face it. Stewed chicken feet and balut probably won't be on any menus in south Charlotte, agreed? But good bottles of wine will be.
The prices at Bamboo 7 reflect the neighborhood. Entrées range from $7.25 for chicken lo mien, spicy sautéed eggplant, or pad Thai to $19.95 for a steamed sea bass in ginger soy sauce. Most of the traditional Chinese dishes -- General Tso's Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Kung Pao Shrimp -- are about $10. Lunch specials range from $4.95 to $6.50 and include fried rice and a spring roll.
So what's with the name Bamboo 7? Liu hoped to inspire a lucky karma with the name. Well I'm no fortune cookie, but it seems Liu's luck is in her loyal following.
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