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Minneapolis/St. Paul: A Place to Taste

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Restaurant Reviews

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 19 and 20

Almost all large supermarkets and malls offer you the chance to taste Chinese food under the Leeann Chinn logo. Pass up the opportunity and head for this creative Chinese culinary guru at her newest place, Asia Grille. Are you having a problem recalling her, but you do not know from where?

In 1980, the recipes in the Betty Crocker Chinese Cookbook bear her name. Many of them were from her popular cooking classes. In 1990, a second book published by General Mills, Betty Crocker's New Chinese Cookbook provided more recipes by Leeann Chin. The third cookbook, Everyday Chinese Cooking is reviewed in this issue of Flavor and Fortune on page 23. This cook book is without Betty Crocker, and was written with her daughter, Katie Chin. Together they share tasty and easy to follow recipes that reflect their Cantonese heritage. These are recipes with delicious Chinese tastes brought from Guangzhou via Hong Kong to the midwest of the United States by Leeann Chin herself, at age twenty-two. They are a refreshing collection of fast, easy and healthful recipes everyone can love.

The elder Mrs. Chin is a creative quick woman ahead of her time. She herself owned a growing chain of successful eateries in middle America. She sold them in 1985 to General Mills, a Fortune 500 company. They were not as good at running them as she was, so three years later she decided to reacquire all Leeann Chin Chinese Cuisine eateries so that she could return them to their original format. She also wanted to expand these restaurants but General Mills was not interested.

Unfortunately, in repurchasing them, she probably needed more cash than she had at that time. So she and a group of backers helped determine their future. Now, you see them in many in strip malls and you find them in upscale supermarkets. The latter, thanks to a creative and innovative partnership with a local supermarket chain called Byerlys. How many there are is hard to tell. Mrs Chin says about fifty, her publicity agent touts the number as more than seventy, and a news person claiming to be 'in the know' says there are better than eighty.

Nevermind all of that, just know that this '1993 Entrepreneur of the Year' has brought lots of Chinese food to this region of the country; and that she was and is continually recognized for her efforts. She was recipient of the prestigious 'President's Certificate of Appreciation' in 1991, the 'Small Business Administration Regional Entrepreneur of the Year' winner in 1995, 'Business Owner of the Year in 1998' and many more awards. Recognition continues coming to this warm, energetic, inspirational, and creative woman. She is a restaurant owner to emulate, always ready to try to advance knowledge about Chinese food.

ASIA GRILLE at 549 Eden Prairie Center Drive, Eden Prairie MN; phone: 952/944-4095 is Leann Chin's newest venture. We personally appreciated our chance to visit there. This restaurant takes a new approach to Chinese dining. Enter it and you see its sparkling stainless steel open-kitchen. Eat there and you get to enjoy gorgeous, well-prepared, artistically presented dishes. Mrs. Chin believes in and uses the freshest of ingredients. If you sit as we did in the raised area, you get to see them made, see them taken to other tables, and see and savor them at your own. Many come on a striking platter, half black half gray, and they stand at attention. They may be saying: I surely taste as good as I look, try me and be delighted you did.

Food at the Asia Grille is very fusion and can be very fine. Be prepared for current concepts; that is tall food, mixed flavors, lovely garnishes, and a healthy amount of fried foods--be they main ingredient or garnish. At its best, the food at Asia Grille is model of fine food. It is certainly a major improvement over its supermarket strip-mall cousins whose over-fried and long-steamed stuff pales in comparison. At them, pans of stir-fried whatevers followed by their overly sweet Banana Wonton with Chocolate Sauce or their thick tough cinnamon-sprinkled wonton for dessert are something no self-respecting Chinese person would partake.

But do go eat at the Asia Grille. There, dishes are gorgeous-looking, taste good, are found in a classy up-scale neighborhood, and are at a place where you’ll have a lovely dining experience. The staff is solicitous and the classy bar at the entryway begs indulgence. The crisp linens and Japanese plate holders raise your dishes and your spirits when dining at the Asia Grille.

Try the Eurasian Rolls and Thai Spring Rolls. Sample the Potstickers with Cilantro Pesto; these are lovely appetizers whose Chinese tastes prevail. The Hot and Sour Soup is as good as it gets, though the Won Ton Soup is as banal as in almost every Chinese take-out. The Chinese Chicken Salad would never be our choice, but the Wok Seared Spicy Chicken is terrific. The Twelve Ingredient Rice is better than the Young Jewel Fried Rice, its extra cost worth the investment. The Garlic Pork with Green Beans was good, the Mongolian Pork far from the Steppes, the Udon Noodles with Vegetables every vegetarian’s dream, and the Kung Pau Shrimp needed a heavy shot of seasoning.

Imperial Chicken at Asia Grille was regal, the Lemon Chicken a bit bland, and the Spit Roasted Soy Garlic Chicken so unbelievably good you should order it in the largest size available. We tried a quarter of this tasty bird, an entire half would hardly satiate my hubby, who after the succulent meat was gone, would chomp on every bone at least twice.

We noticed that in Leeann Chin's open kitchen, there was not a single Asian on the cooking team. No matter, those that prepare your food make it Chinese style with lots of Chinese flavor. They know task and taste, and the dishes taste as in Leeann Chin's task was cooking them.

The menu has limited offerings, so do take advantage of the specials, most too good to be missed. We did not taste the Teriyaki New York Steak, but the wood-fired rotisserie grille’s fish of the day and the aforementioned chicken say that this nouvelle Chinese beauty of a place mixes and matches Asian cuisines and does it in a Chinese style and mostly with Chinese flavor.

SHANG CHENG at 1320 4th Street SE in Minneapolis MN; phone: 612/376-0208 is a golden oldie where fine Chinese food can be found; it is in an area called Dinkytown near the University. That means it is across the river from downtown. The owner, Daniel Lam, hails from Guangzhou and has been manning the wok here for a dozen years. One Chinese lady told me that he gets better in each and every one of them. On week-ends, plan to wait for a table. The place has only ninety seats, many with torn banquets. Never mind. Keep in mind you need to arrive early as he really does close the doors at ten most evenings, an hour later on week-ends.

Pile in, as we did, and browse the menu. It is huge. Take in the pair of altars and the four Chinese stone pictures. They are classic, as is the food. Try the BBQ Pork, Roast Duck, and Roasted Pig. It is better to do that on week-ends when they are at their freshest and their best. Students consume noodle and rice dishes, but knowing Chinese families order from the sixty seafood selections. We think it is they that garnered this eatery three and a half stars in the Star Tribune in 1999.

The Stir Fried Mustard Greens dish probably has something to do with this stellar rating, too. They come with lots of delicious ginger, sweet with no sugar, and laced with superior stock. This dish is outstanding, the greens caramelized. It is the very best rendition of these vegetables ever.

Another winner is a casserole-type hot pot called Yellow Fish with Fried Bean Curd. So is the Shrimp with Bean Noodles and the Roast Pig with Ginger Scallion in Shrimp Sauce. The Walleye in Black Bean Sauce is another absolutely fantastic dish. We recommend, particularly to those who are unfamiliar with this fine fish, that they order it.

A great feature of this restaurant is that many dishes can be ordered in small, medium, or large sizd portions. This allows for small groups to have as many dishes at their meals as can larger ones. By the way, the small dishes are anything but skimpy, so do not hesitate to order them.

Far from gorgeous, certainly this eatery proves what an elder may have told you, and that is: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Better to go and learn what many local Chinese already know. And that is that Mr. Lam has talents whose treats need to be tasted.

SINGAPORE CHINESE RESTAURANT at 1715 Beam Avenue, Maplewood MN 55109; phone: 651/777-7999 is in a suburb of Minneapolis. Lin Kim, chef and owner, has taste buds and talent that treats every sense. His place is plain and his very own magnificent color photographs grace each menu’s cover; they tell you this place knows beauty.

The left half of the menu is typical Chinese. Be advised to hone in on the items Malaysian-Chinese style because they are remarkable. This restaurant is in the Maplewood suburb. Its Nonya and Singaporean food, Chinese with Malay overtones, is why we and dozens of others travel to get here. Others come from as far away as Chicago on the east and Wisconsin on the west to delight in it.

We recommend you get there and then do as we did; put yourself in the chef’s capable hands. The Spicy Peppery Chicken and Eggplant marries flavors fried with onions, green peppers, and carrots; what a magnificent blend of spices. The Assam Lemak, a hot spicy sauce thickened with coconut cream, goes well with prawns, scallops, or just vegetables. It should not be missed.

The fried bean curd in sambal sauce is called Tauhu Goreng Masak Sambal Belachan. It was so terrific we persuaded the chef to sell us some of his sauce mix to take it to New York to share with family and friends. Let us advise, every one of them was delighted we did. A simple dish of Nasi Goreng reaches new heights here. The rice is stirred with onions, peas, shrimp, and egg, the flavors in this and every dish tantalizes.

The chef told us that he periodically goes to Chicago to get the best spices and grinds his own and cooks them for hours. Their mellowness speaks of his long efforts. The Grilled Beef Short Ribs on a table nearby almost had us wandering over to make new friends and try that spice mixture. The aroma wafted our way and spoke to its goodness. Captain’s Curry says twenty-seven spices are used; local critics rave about it. Mnd many of the foods of China and Malaysia served here; if the ones we tried are typical examples, all are worth trying.

Do not let anyone ever tell you that fine food from the Asian continent can not be had in this part of the United States. That may have been true years ago. Not so now when just one Asian population, the Hmong, have established this region as the leading center in the country just for this one ethnic group.

Many from China and other parts of Asia are living in this part of the United States. They are cooking and eating fine Chinese food and fine foods of other Asian cuisines in restaurants. So can you. In this region of the country, a free English-language bi-weekly called Asian Pages is published. Phyllis Harris writes about fine Asian food in this region and her jottings are not to be missed. She told us about the Asian Culinary Arts Institute where well-trained folk offer fine cooking lessons. You can contact her and the newspaper by e-mail at: asianpages@att.net or you can call them at 1-800-998-8379.

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