Ch’i Public House Opens in SoNo – Exceptional Asian-Inspired Cuisine

Ch’i Public House opened in late November in the space formerly occupied by Ocean Drive and Red Lulu on Washington Street in SoNo. The forces behind the new Asian-inspired restaurant are Rob Moss, Marco Siguenza and Dave Studwell, owners of neighboring Washington Prime. Overseeing the kitchen is Executive Chef Mark Taruna, whose long career spans attending the French Culinary Institute and working as the Sous Chef for Nobu Matsushisa at Nobu. He subsequently joined The Food Network and ran the Iron Chef kitchen where he worked with Morimoto, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay. He brings a new level of creativity to many classic recipes with bold flavors and textures, from the simplest dumpling to the most complex sauces.

Ch’i is a key concept in Feng Shui, defined as universal energy, the energy that surrounds us all, and the interior has been revamped to a vibrant, yet relaxed Asian motif. Your journey begins with a long entryway leading to the large bar area, with thirteen bar stools and sofas to seat ten guests. The two-story dining area features a floor to ceiling waterfall, with slowly trickling water cascading on small statues of Buddha and several other walls adorned with indented shelves that house additional Buddha statues. Off to the side is a private dining room, which can serve up to twelve people, with the main dining area offering two U-shaped booths for six people plus additional seating for 24 guests. The second-floor balcony has additional table seating for over 50 plus a second semi-private area with sofas for ten.

CTbites was invited to sample an array of dishes and I was so impressed that I returned a few nights later to enjoy others.

Start your meal with the Hot & Sour Soup. The enormous bowl is filled with a velvety thick broth loaded with crispy vegetables. The first notable difference from other hot and sour soups is the inclusion of large segments of numerous types of mushrooms. It delivered more a moderate spicy than sour, a balance that I enjoyed. If a lighter soup is desired, order the Miso Soup, which is slightly thicker, more flavorful and less salty than what is commonly found in the area. If you are looking for perfect fried dumplings, order the fried pork gyoza. These were paper-thin wrappers filled with minced pork and crispy vegetables. They were outstanding, maybe the best I have eaten.

My favorite smaller plate was the Yellowtail Tartare, which was beautiful to the eye as well as the palate. The diced tuna was encased in a ring of thinly sliced cucumbers, topped with thin wedges of avocado, small mounds of red and black fish roe, micro greens and plated with dollops of wasabi cream, yuzu and cucumber-lime sauce. The array of differing and complementing flavors was outstanding, the sweets balanced by a little hint of spiciness was fantastic with the yellowtail.

With a few shrimp options on the menu, the appetizer of Crispy Hong Kong Shrimp was so delicious we ordered it again on a subsequent visit. Five shrimp were lightly coated and perfectly fried and sat atop an outstanding sauce, surrounded by grilled thin asparagus spears and droplets of hoisin sauce. The moist shrimp were a great canvas to complement one of the most delicious sweet and spicy sauces. The dish presented a wonderful sweet-spicy-crunchy combination in very subtle manners. Add a touch of hoisin for additional depth

The Hamachi and Salmon Sashimi included eight large triangular pieces of fresh fish served with freshly grated wasabi and intermingled with thin lemon slices. The inclusion of freshly grated versus powdered wasabi enhanced the delicateness of the sashimi with a mild spiciness and floral tones.

Somewhat disappointing was the Beef Tataki. Ch’i’s interpretation included six chunks of beef (versus the traditional pounded) that sat atop a slice of cucumber and topped with vegetables and finished with crisped onions and sauce. The first piece was a little overcooked, while the second was much better. This would be a nice selection to share amongst a few guests.

The Toban Djan Shrimp was simple in its presentation, complex in its components, and fantastic. Toban Djan is a fermented paste that combines hot chilies with broad beans. Several large shrimp were fanned around a mound of onions and red peppers, topped with frizzled onions and served next to a cone of Jasmine rice, a smattering of asparagus pieces and sauce. The dish presented an abundance of flavors, from the slight spiciness of the sauce, supplemented by Thai basil, garlic and crab paste for additional umami, to sweetness of the peppers and onions, to the delicate and moist rice.

The beef Filet was delicious and presented yet another new flavor profile. The beautifully seasoned tenderloin was prepared to a perfect medium-rare and sat atop sautéed onions and red peppers and charred asparagus. It was accompanied by thyme and butter roasted red potatoes, which were crisped on the exterior and soft and creamy throughout. The complementing sauce combined a sweet-spicy chili paste, from the Szechuan province, with Toban Djan garlic butter, which elevated all of the ingredients.

Accompanying dishes received the same attention to detail. The Pork Belly Fried Rice was a large bowl of lightly soy accented rice, intermixed with an abundance of thin slices of roasted pork belly and diced red pepper. Instead of scrambling and including the egg within the rice, Chef Mark layered a crispy fried egg on top. Open the yolk to release its creamy goodness and enjoy the sweet pork intermingled with the slightly salty rice.

Desserts are both simple and elegant. The cylinders of pound cake were layered with vanilla ice cream, chocolate, Amaretto and reduced lychee sauces, plus lychees and caramelized pineapple segments. It was delicious.

Overall, the food is outstanding at Ch’i Public House. The environment is hip, exciting and filled with positive chi. With only a few weeks under its belt, Ch’i is experiencing some opening service issues. Seating, timing of delivery and the overall customer focus needs a little attention. But the food was well worth overlooking these minor annoyances.

Really Liked

  • Hot and Sour Soup ($6)
  • Shanghai Pork Ribs ($15)
  • Yellowtail Tartare ($16)
  • Crispy Hong Kong Shrimp ($14)
  • Pork Gyoza ($12)
  • Filet Mignon ($32)
  • Toban Djan Shrimp ($24)

Liked

  • Miso Soup ($7)
  • Beef Tataki ($14)

The author was not compensated for this review. The first visit was provided without charge and the author paid for the second visit. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author.

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Outrageous BBQ at Mason Dixon Smokehouse in Stamford

World-class BBQ returns to CT with the homecoming of renowned pitmaster Nestor Laracuente, who is overseeing the kitchen at Mason Dixon Smokehouse in Stamford. When I heard that Nestor was teaming up with Mason Dixon, I was ecstatic, the mounds of his perfectly prepared meats that I raved about at Hoodoo Brown were indelible etched in my memory. Would Mason Dixon fill the void that I have felt for months? Bottom line…yes, the food is spectacular.

Laracuente is a soft-spoken lover of meats and Southern rock who spent years perfecting his craft. After leaving CT last year, he returned to Brooklyn where he spent time with his buddy at Beast of Bourbon in Bed-Stuy. His time was spent experimenting with new rubs, new dishes, waiting for the right opportunity for his return to Connecticut. His newest venture, of which he is part-owner, opened a few weeks ago and it is slowly expanding the menu.

The interior is modern rustic, with rough-hewed-edged tables under Edison bulbs dangling from the ceiling, exposed brick from front to back along the right and a long bar on the left. There is seating to accommodate 85 at tables, another eight guests can sit at high-top tables overlooking the bar and more than a dozen bar stools. The walls are adorned with painted chalkboards proclaiming “Keep Calm it’s BBQ Time,” “BBQ is a Culture,” “BBQ is a Taste Memory,” and “Best BBQ in Town is Right Here.”

The bar offers eight beers ($7) on tap including Allagash White Ale, Bronx Pale Ale, Firefly Lizard’s Breath IPA and Stamford’s own Half Full Toasted Amber Ale. “Blue Collar Brewskies” are $4-5 and include PBR and Modelo Especial and an assortment of craft beers range from $5-8. Almost all of the beers are US brewed. Likewise, the bar offers a significant selection of US ryes, bourbons and single malts and a few Tequilas and Mezcals from Mexico. A craft cocktail menu includes named drinks Shallow Grave, Snake in My Boot and Austin-Tacious.

But the centerpieces of any BBQ joint are the meats and the sides, and Mason Dixon’s are slowly prepared in two 108” Lang smokers. The menu includes Appetizers of Macho Nachos with smoked brisket, QueTine, a BBQ poutine with a choice of BBQ over fries and finally smoked and deep-fried Wings. Three sandwiches are currently offered and include a Barnyard Rumble with both pulled pork and smoked brisket, Hogzilla with shaved ribs, Carolina pork and cracklin’ pork belly and a Black Friday with smoked turkey. Additional meats available for the Combos include St. Louis ribs, and smoked chicken. The sides include Brisket Beans, Mac-n-Cheese, Collard Greens, Cucumber Salad, Apple Slaw, Potato Salad, Seasoned Fries, Cranberry Sauce and Cherry-Carrot Salad.

I chose the Combo with three meats, cornbread and a side ($23), and elected the St. Louis Ribs, Brisket and Carolina Pork, plus the Brisket Beans for my side. When the platter arrived, I noticed the pork belly was present instead of the Carolina pork and the server was quick to bring me a separate portion of the pork, customer happiness is key.

The brisket was hand-sliced and delivered an abundance of juiciness and a moderate level of spice from the pepper-salt rub. There was a great smoke ring, with a thin strip of fat separating the crust from the meat, which was tender and rich in flavor. With a slight tug, the slices came part easily to enjoy each delectable morsel.

The St. Louis ribs were not only picture-perfect, they were perfect. Nestor’s new rub includes a hint of brown sugar to balance the salt and pepper rub and the meaty ribs were succulent throughout. The rub created a firm crust and a good level of smokiness. Avoid the urge to add any sauce to these ribs…let the meat and spices speak for themselves.

The Pork Belly at Mason Dixon sets a new standard. The large cubes were almost completely meat, nearly all of the fat was slowly rendered out. There was a thin layer of skin that was lightly crisped, just giving that little cracklin’ crunch when bit into. When a little sauce was added, it created a delicious canvas of flavors and fantastic balance of soft meaty texture offset by the slight crunch of the skin.

The smoked pork was also excellent. The portion included several large, thick slices of perfectly smoke pork. They were smoky, meaty and juicy. Of all the meats, the pork benefitted the most from the sauce as the rub was limited to the exterior of each thick cut. Adding the tangy and sweet sauce created a wonderful complementary balance to the rich pork.

The sides were equal to the challenge of accompanying the meats. The Brisket Beans was out of this world. The creamy beans were intermixed with chunks of brisket. The first bite took my palate in a different direction. While the other dishes focused on sweet and smoky, the beans brought in some spiciness, just enough to grab your attention. The house-made corn bread was moist, dense, with great texture. There was just a little touch of crunchiness throughout the piece, with sweetness kicking in from the thin layer of maple atop the cornbread. The carrot cherry salad was a little too sweet for my taste.

After my carnivorous extravaganza, Nestor stopped by the table. After he instructed the server to change the music to the Lynyrd Skynyrd station, I asked him what drove him in his BBQ passion. He slowly stroked his beard and told me “food is an important part of life…it brings people together. I saw the power of how a perfect piece of fried chicken could bring a group of teenagers together on a Sunday night. I then embraced the hardest parts of smoking, the rain, the cold, all to create the meats that would bring people together over a great meal. That is the power of food”

Overall, Mason Dixon Smokehouse is one of the best, if not the best, BBQ I have eaten in years. Nestor Laracuente has mastered the art of smoking, yet constantly looks to improve his recipes and his technique that already create flawless meats. Each and every bite brought a smile to my face, and I highly recommend grabbing a table, a large appetite and make sure you have a handful of napkins to wipe the sauce from your smiles.

78 West Park Place – Stamford, CT 203-817-0392

http://www.masondixonstamford.com

The author was not compensated for this review; the meal was provided without charge. The opinions contained herein are solely those of the author.