It could be argued that no cuisine has suffered more in its translation to the American table than China's.
Those ubiquitous plastic bowls filled with greasy fried noodles . . . the bland melanges of unidentifiable meats and vegetables in thick, starchy sauces . . . the huge portions of salt-and fat-laden foods in wire-handled boxes that diners tote home, only to see them languish in the back of the fridge until they take on a life of their own: These "hallmarks" of Chinese cooking are really nothing more than concessions to an uneducated American palate.
Happily for ever-more-sophisticated Cleveland diners, Scott Wu, proprietor and chef at the eponymous Wu's Cuisine, is raising the bar. The education he offers is simple. All it takes is a single visit to his seven-table restaurant to discover how subtle, elegant, and fresh-flavored Chinese cooking can be, in the hands of a master.
Chef Wu, as everyone calls him, prefers to communicate through his food and leave the spoken word to his gregarious wife, Lee. As she tells it, the 54-year-old culinary professional's background takes on almost mythic proportions. A professionally trained chef who started cooking at fifteen, Wu spent eighteen years in some of Taiwan's best restaurants, where he refined his classic Chinese cooking skills and mastered the specialties of Taiwan and Japan. Upon his arrival in Cleveland, he served a brief stint in the kitchen of downtown's toniest Chinese restaurant. ("They charge big prices, but they pay their staff nothing!" Lee still fumes.) Seven years ago, he took over the former House of Hunan in Lakewood, where he developed an outstanding menu of familiar and not-so-familiar Szechwan and Hunan dishes, featuring fresh seafood, meats, and vegetables, and a wide assortment of flavorful housemade sauces and condiments.
Today, Wu weaves his culinary magic in the kitchen of his tiny restaurant, an eatery that exudes more friendliness than fashion. Lee Wu plays the role of gracious hostess, server, and ambassador of goodwill, chatting enthusiastically with her guests, who all get treated like family. (She even remembered me, from a lunch stop I had made there nearly two months earlier, and was able to repeat our conversation from that visit almost verbatim.) Chit chat between unrelated diners at adjoining tables seems to be the norm, with Lee acting as social director. In that role, she gets an occasional assist from her gorgeous little black-haired children, who make jet-propelled forays into the dining room to deliver dinner checks and keep an eye on Mom.
As for decor, the dining room walls are covered with family photos, crayon drawings, and arithmetic worksheets. Tables are set with bright--almost gaudy--red and orange cloths and topped with vases filled with plastic lotus blossoms, and the lighting is supplied by three mismatched ceiling fixtures turned up to full brightness. Still, everything is scrupulously clean, the dinnerware is a contemporary pattern of embossed white china, classical music plays resolutely in the background, and the overall feel is rather like the comfortable dining room of an old friend.
Despite the homey ambiance, Wu's cuisine is sophisticated and is clearly meant to be as pleasing to the eye as to the palate.
Take, as an example, his General Tso's Chicken, which is a house specialty. The dish arrived on a sparkling-white serving platter--a simple backdrop for the colorful ingredients. On one side of the plate, a dozen golden fingers of deep-fried chicken gleamed against a translucent, mahogany-colored hot-and-sour sauce. On the other side, verdant broccoli florets shimmered like emeralds. And as a garnish, a bright orange "flower," cunningly crafted from a carrot, shone forth from a forest of fresh parsley. It made about as beautiful a picture as any we have found in a Cleveland restaurant.
Of course, this wasn't just eye candy. We couldn't wait to dig in and savor the clear flavors and distinct textures. First, there was the chicken's succulent white meat enrobed in a crunchy breading and wonderfully accented by the light, spicy sauce, with just a hint of garlic. Then we relished the perfectly tender, yet still crisp, steamed broccoli florets that we swept, like little whiskbrooms, through the tasty sauce. While the menu calls this a "hot and spicy" dish, we asked to have it prepared medium-hot and found it did no more than pleasantly pique our tongues.
An order of Four Seasons String Beans, off the "Primarily Vegetables" section of the menu, was a mouth-watering variation of Szechwan-style dry-fried string beans. What must have been a pound of long, fat, fresh green beans had been lightly roasted and then tossed with butter and shreds of salty pickled cabbage. The result was a crunchy, buttery treat with all the mouth appeal of a bowl of potato chips, but underpinned with the sweet, juicy flavor of fresh vegetables.
Other than the bottled soy and plum sauces, all of the restaurant's sauces are made from scratch. Wu's way with these concoctions was highlighted in a serving of Shrimp and Beef with Black Bean Sauce, another house specialty. Plenty of firm, fresh shrimp and meltingly tender beef had been stir-fried with pieces of dried bean curd and slivers of scallion, zucchini, mushroom, carrot, and green pepper. The dish was then tossed with a zippy, highly aromatic sauce of fermented black beans and garlic. The tiny black beans had a pungent, earthy taste similar to cured olives, and the entire dish was bursting with a complex blend of deep, sharp, and slightly sour flavors.
On the other side of the taste continuum was a much lighter but full-flavored order of Scallops and Shrimp with Cashews. (The menu promised macadamia nuts, but Lee told us when we ordered that the kitchen was out; we were glad we took her suggestion to try the dish with cashews.) Lots of tiny, lightly breaded scallops, full of clean "sea" flavor, had been stir-fried with rich cashews, juicy shrimp, and shreds of carrot, green pepper, mushroom, broccoli, and lettuce. The dish was then finished with a robust yet remarkably delicate sauce that allowed the flavors of the ingredients to shine on through.
Appetizer selections included a crisp pork-and-vegetable spring roll, Szechwan-style Leung Mein (cold spaghetti-like noodles in a nest of finely shredded iceberg lettuce, topped with a wonderfully thick, sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce), and Minced Beef in Pancake--a spicy blend of tender beef, cashews, and shredded iceberg lettuce, served with sweet-and-salty plum sauce and two thin, chewy mandarin pancakes, made with wheat flour and water. (Lee gladly demonstrated how to fill and roll the crepe-like pancakes into little Asian burritos, just right for whetting the appetite.)
Wu's has no liquor license, so the beverage of choice is tea. And although dessert options are essentially nonexistent, there's no law to prevent diners from crossing the street to Malley's candy store and ice cream parlor for, say, a jumbo hot fudge sundae or a raspberry soda at the end of the meal, is there?
Wu hasn't raised his ridiculously low prices since he opened--most entrees are in the $8 to $9 range--but Lee predicts that diners may soon see a modest price increase.
Even at twice the price, though, this exceptionally fine food is an education in good taste and goes a long way toward helping Chinese cuisine shake off its chop suey image.
Wu's Cuisine. 14821 Madison Avenue, Lakewood. 216-221-9030. Carryout or dine in. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Spring Roll $1.25
Szechwan Leung Mein $3.25
Minced Beef in Pancake $5.95
Four Seasons String Beans $6.50
Shrimp and Beef with Black Bean Sauce $9.50
General Tso's Chicken $9.95
Scallops, Shrimps, and Cashews $10.