Cleaning Up the Image of Chinese Cuisine
"How come there are so few fancy Chinese restaurants in Chicago? In LA, San Francisco, and New York, upscale Chinese is as common as high-class French places," says Bing Zhou, pondering a conundrum that has occupied his mind ever since he opened his own restaurant in Lakeview six years ago. Now certain that Chicago is ready for Chinese haute cuisine, he's moved Chens to larger, brighter quarters about a block south of Wrigley Field on Clark and revamped the menu to include more traditional dishes from his native Shanghai.
Predictably Zhou dismisses his rivals. Ben Pao? "Fancy but fake. Do they call themselves Chinese?" P.F. Chang's? "They're a chain based in Texas. One of the chefs in their Northbrook restaurant used to be at Spago. I asked, 'Are you cooking Italian?'" Dee's? Jia's? "Very Americanized but the decors are nice." About the only competitor he respects is Phoenix, in Chinatown, but Zhou says he aims higher. "I hope to educate Chicagoans on what the best of Chinese food tastes like," he says.
Zhou knows how to prepare dishes to please China's elite. Indeed, that was what he did for almost two years in the mid-1980s, as an apprentice in the kitchen of a Shanghai guest house where Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries stayed. "Some of the finest chefs worked there," he recalls, "and since there was a lot of downtime between VIP visits we sampled food and drank a lot of beer. The masters taught kids like me how to cook, how to experiment with new dishes. And I wrote the recipes down in my notebook." He had joined the staff after studying hotel management and psychology in a municipal college. Though he can't quite pinpoint the moment when he decided to forsake medicine--the profession of his parents--for business, he says that he's always felt in control making financial deals and that his memory "is not good enough to keep track of all those chemistry terms." It's sharp enough, however, to remember the dishes cooked by his grandmother and mother. "I owe a lot of my knowledge about hongsao [the traditional Shanghai method of slow roasting meat in soy sauce, sugar, wine, and ginger] to them," he says. "And the way they made the seafood dishes with delicious heavy sauce."
Zhou toyed with the idea of working his way up the ladder in one of Shanghai's Western hotels--his vocational degree and prestigious apprenticeship would have given him immediate entry. But America intrigued him. His father, a renowned heart surgeon, had been a researcher at the University of Chicago between 1983 and '86, and his tales of life in Chicago impressed Zhou, who had stayed behind. In 1987 he left China for his father's favorite city.
He enrolled in the MBA program at Roosevelt University and got a job as an assistant at the old Szechwan House on Michigan Avenue. Later, he moved to a managerial position at the now-defunct Tang Dynasty on Walton, which remains a model for him. "They had the best chef in town, and they understood that most Americans liked to dine in nice places and not in those tacky, bad-air restaurants in Chinatown," he says. "For a lot of patrons, if you don't have good ambience and service, it doesn't matter how great your food is."
Zhou opened Chen's on Halsted in 1994--Chen is his wife's surname--taking over the lease from a friend who had run House of Dongyuan. Though he tried to be inventive with what he served, the basic fare wasn't too different from what one might find at a higher-end Chinatown restaurant such as Evergreen. "The volume of business was OK," he says. "Many of our customers were older, and takeouts made up 50 percent of our receipts." He might have stayed on Halsted if the landlord hadn't put the building up for sale. Zhou wanted to buy it but the price was too high. After a long search, he found a two-story structure on Clark that housed a seafood place called Society and a hot-dog joint. The landlord agreed to rent the entire building to him if he paid for the improvements.
The renovation took over eight months and $800,000. All the while, Zhou kept Chens--the new name conforms to its Internet address--open. He hired an architect (and patron) who specialized in clubs and bars, and he put in bamboo flooring and terra-cotta warriors imported from China. "I want a very modern design with a lot of Chinese touches," he says of the 6,000-square-foot space. He installed a sizable bar because he figured the weekend crowd would want to imbibe while waiting for tables, and his wife, Sandy, concocted martinis flavored with litchi, plum, and ginger.
Though he has two chefs--one from Hong Kong, the other from the mainland--he's often in the kitchen cooking and supervising. His menu features dishes in four main regional styles--spicy Szechuan and Hunan, light, natural-flavored Cantonese, hearty, soy-heavy Pekingese, and, of course, the Shanghai dishes that he calls "subtle, complex, and just the right sweetness." Soong--diced meat and vegetables lightly stir-fried and wrapped in lettuce leaves--is a Shanghai specialty that's usually, he says, "smothered by plum sauce." The sesame plates--chicken, beef, shrimp, or all three, coated with a rich honey-sesame sauce--are favorites with his patrons, and the Shanghai-style sauteed green beans are becoming one as well. His dumplings, he adds, use the traditional filling of baby bok choy, mushrooms, and tofu.
Zhou isn't sure that Chicagoans will go for the core of Shanghai cooking, so he plans to introduce new dishes through daily specials like soft-shell crab in black bean sauce and jumbo unpeeled shrimp coated in garlic paste. He also plans to add veal and lobster prepared Shanghai style and the hongsao foie gras that he thinks could be the next fusion hit. "It's not easy to persuade even my regulars to eat something different," he says with a shrug. "But it's my mission to make Chens a hospitable restaurant for the enjoyment of fine Chinese food."
Chens is at 3506 N. Clark, 773-549-9100.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.