Pick-Up Artist: Yau's Chinese Bistro
But once upon a time, bistro pointed to a quaint, usually wine-stained place with an everyday ambiance that served simple but very satisfying food. Now, I suppose, bistro bluntly means "any old kind of restaurant" (which causes me to wonder how long it'll be before we see "Bistro KFC").
So when I thought about Yau's - a considerably above-average Chinese takeout place - appropriating bistro in its name too, I simply smiled and figured, "well, why not?" Of course I'd begrudge Yau's more if its food were less interesting or more cliche.
Open for over six years right across the street from South Campus Gateway, Yau's has an interior I'd call just this side of Spartan. I mean, it looks clean inside and there are a few culturally correct artistic diversions hanging on its pale yellow walls and above its humdrum meeting room chairs and tables.
But frankly, I'd rather be eating Yau's non-routine food at home in my easy chair - with a glass of cheap riesling or a nice cold beer - while enjoying my HDTV. And that's exactly what I've been doing over the past few weeks.
Overall, I'd say that though Yau's multi-page menu makes dutiful stops to the requisite faux-Chinese General Tso's territories, it refreshingly travels regularly to more authentic destinations involving fish balls, choi sum and fermented black bean sauce.
What's more, Yau's food seems less greasy, salty or sloppy than its many competitors; and the place gets lots of mileage from flavoring agents I prefer - hot pepper oil and aromatic five-spice powder. Plus, the food comes out correctly, in a snap, making Yau's a reliable Campus-area Chinese takeout "bistro" cuts above the norm.
• Pork with Pickled Greens ($6/$9) - A piquant, multi-dimensional mouthful of strong flavors. Big hunks of hacked-up pickled cabbage and onions played off a mildly sweet sauce with salty fermented black beans in it. The pork bits - which tasted smoky from a high-heat searing - were used in typically true Chinese style, basically as a condiment.
• Baked Tofu with Beef ($6/$9) - Unusual, delicious and texturally fun to eat, this might even convert squishy tofu doubters. Thick meaty strips of extra-super-firm tofu (it's at least 2:1 tofu to meat) soaked up earthy flavors from shiitakes in a dark sauce and matched well with the slightly fatty, tender beef slices. A little veggie contrast came from scallions, onions and the occasional pea pod.
• Spicy Salted Squid ($7/$10) - This tongue-tingling seafood delight can actually breathe new interest into consumers of that ubiquitous, overused ingredient, calamari. Lightly battered and fried super-tender squid curls arrived with an arousing salty edge and a hiccup-inducing, spicy chili treatment of diced jalapenos and pepper-seed oil.
• Black Bean Salmon ($7/$10) - Another winner! Big, meaty chunks of lightly battered and fried clean-tasting fish were treated with respect to an almost fruity sweet and salty sauce with a few hot chili flakes and hefty hunks of onions and green peppers in it.
• Chao Gui Dew ($9) - Big, wide, wiggly chow-fun-like noodles, a ton of them, were fleshed out with wads of "wok-ed" egg; little nuggets of sweet Chinese sausage; a couple of shrimp; a dark, soy-based sauce plus some sneaky chili heat.
• Curry Beef Stew with Rice ($6/9) - Mouth-filling, unctuous pieces of slightly stringy but very tender stewy meat in a delicious mild curry gravy delivered lots of comfort, a little sweetness and a bit of chili heat.
Boxed and bagged
Yau's Chinese Bistro's carryout performance
Percentage of orders correct: 100
Time promised: 15 minutes
Time ready: When I walked in after 12 minutes
Good to go?: Yau's uses standard-issue compartmentalized Styro boxes and wraps them tightly in plastic bags - so any spillage was efficiently contained. Note that most of Yau's entrees come in large and small sizes, and while the smalls allow more experimentation, the far bigger larges are a much better value.
Yau's Chinese Bistro
1493 N. High St., Campus