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Asian bistro struggles to beat the odds

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Sometimes real estate spins malevolence upon all occupants. You've seen those locations that spell certain doom for any restaurant, even the ones that would be successful elsewhere. Other challenging spots are those where the former occupants had reputations for either grand or ghastly food. Lucky is the entrepreneur who follows a great restaurant; hapless are those who don't. Their climb may be of Sisyphean proportions, especially if they trail the previous restaurant with a similar cuisine concept.

So it is with Jing Jing Han (Jenny, to her American friends and customers) and husband David Zhou, who opened Gourmet Kitchen Asian Bistro last February. This spot had hosted a series of Chinese restaurants, the last being Tsing Tao. Commented Zhou: "A lot of people think it's under the old (Tsing Tao) ownership and they don't know we changed. When a Chinese restaurant does not have Asian people in the kitchen . . . how Asian can that food be?"

To overcome the perception that this space is the same Chinese restaurant it was before, Han and Zhou have made some notable changes. First, the menu is a combination of Chinese and Thai. Han noted that Thai food has become popular in Charlotte. Second, the couple redecorated the interior. But the end result is modest at best. Wall hangings depict dancers, yet no music is pumped to the patrons, and the screens which shield diners from the floor traffic are Japanese. In these days of cross-cultural dressing, the utensils of choice are forks and knives, not chopsticks. The kitchen at Gourmet is manned by a Chinese chef, and Zhou prides himself on the "high quality" of his ingredients: "We even use jumbo shrimp at lunch."

This is the kind of place you want to like and perhaps overlook the sparse décor, which would be considered somewhat luxurious compared to many of the restaurants I visited in China. Gourmet does not bear models of ancient Chinese warriors as a P.F. KaChing might, nor does it have a high-tech ambience. Gourmet reflects its shoestring budget.

However, the food is pristine and the service exceptional. The most surprising aspect is the wine list. Although only a handful of wines -- primarily from Australia, New Zealand and Japan -- appear on this inexpensive roster, two are from Thailand. Beers are also Asian. Welcomed was the expert wine service offered by Zhou along with an interesting discussion about Great Wall Chinese wine.

The portions at Gourmet are large and satisfying; a handful of starter plates are quite enough for dinner for two. The steamed dumplings are a soothing compelling diversion to the ubiquitous fried egg roll. The lettuce wraps, however, are almost too precise and spunkless. The only hot sauce to enliven them is a hot chili oil sauce.

All of this is prelude to main courses where the immense servings continue. On the menu are the usual Chinese suspects: General Tso, Sa Cha, and Triple Delight. Most are either Cantonese or Sichuan, and the others -- primarily the curries and some noodle dishes -- are Thai. The house special, the non-greasy G.K. Trio, comes in a pile of deliciously thin and tender beef slices, whole shrimp, large scallops pebbled with red and green peppers and broccoli flowerets in a smooth brown sauce. The exceedingly Cantonese shrimp in lobster sauce dish is another light entree with the perfectly matched contrasts of English peas and square-cut carrots, as well as soft mushrooms and fantastic tasting shrimp with threads of cooked eggs weaving through the translucent sauce.

Gourmet's prices are more than reasonable for the dishes. Most entrees are $8 or $9 and served in generous portions. The GK dish, for example, had more than a dozen shrimp and scallops plus the beef, yet is priced at $11.

For those who scoff at the frequently bland Cantonese cuisine, remember this was the original regal cuisine, a style of gentle healthy cooking. Sure it's mellow. Emperors didn't need the strong, often stinky sauces to cover up their kitchen's pristine ingredients. An emperor's chef could showcase the ingredients rather than obliterating them with too much heat and sauce. If you seek a more fully flavored dish, select Sichuan or Thai. The Americanized Chinese dishes (General Tso and company) are too sweet for me.

Han and Zhou constantly patrol the dining room, micromanaging their customers and trying hard to make a good impression. Yet while crunching the fortune cookie, I pondered their future and wished a fairy godmother would wave her wand to turn this staid dining room into something as energetic as these restaurateurs.

Eaters' Digest

The Rheinland House, a fixture in Dilworth for decades, is now closed.

A visit to the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa in Asheville to see the National Gingerbread House Competition entries has become an annual trip for many. This year, Bobbie Jinright from Troy, AL, is the Grand Prize winner. Other first-place winners included the "Rock the House Club" from Rock Hill, SC, in the Teen 13-17 age group. The National Gingerbread House Display will be open 24 hours a day, from November 9 through January 8, 2006. The display is free and open to the public.

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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