A platter of broiled oysters sizzling in their shells will always turn heads. But it wasn’t just the sound effects or wafting smell of garlic that captured our attention as a waitress crossed the dining room with this particular order.
Rather, we were intrigued that this dish was coming our way at a Chinese restaurant, and it would not be the only surprise at Soho Asian Cuisine.
There was a bubbling hot pot ($14.95) of lamb chunks and dried tofu “skin” in a brown, woodsy, mushroom-strewn gravy, which tasted like a hybrid of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern. There was the way a stir-fry of bitter melon and beef ($12.95) changed from almost unbearable to practically irresistible with the addition of chunky hot pepper relish.
And there was a whole flounder ($28) essentially turned into a tip-to-tail serving platter for its own fillets — half of them fried, half of them steamed and all of it lavishly garnished as if for a grand banquet.
Soho Asian Cuisine is the latest addition to a small but growing circuit of local Chinese restaurants serving the type of dishes you’d actually find in China. In particular, Soho serves Cantonese cooking, the regional cuisine centered around Hong Kong and known for bright, sometimes tropical flavors, profuse ginger and garlic and often elaborate presentations.
Soho Asian Cuisine opened late last year, on Christmas Eve in fact. It’s in a building that would be small for a casino but is huge for a restaurant.
On it goes, from a roomy lounge and sushi bar, across an expanse of booths and circular tables fitted with revolving trays for shared meals and flanked by live tanks for lobster and Dungeness crabs, past a set of private tatami rooms where groups dine while sitting on the pillowed floor and on to a separate reception hall.
It’s a testament to the camouflaging qualities of its surroundings that such a large restaurant, serving a menu so unusual for this town, feels like a find. Set on a busy block at the start of Veterans Boulevard (and coincidentally, directly across from Royal China, a dim sum destination), the address was previously an Asian buffet. Count me among those who assumed, despite the name change, that it still was one.
But Sam Cheung, the trim and dapper proprietor here, is an eager ambassador for the flavors of his native Hong Kong. He also is savvy enough to hedge Soho’s offerings with a lengthy, fairly standard Japanese menu and a scattering of more familiar American Chinese dishes. General Tso’s chicken ($10.95) makes an appearance, for instance, and Soho serves the usual bargain lunch combos ($7.95).
But then this menu dives right in with appetizers like a chilled, garlic-laden jellyfish salad ($6.95) and roasted beef ($6.95) that took the form of cool, terrine-like slices with a fermented flavor. The Hong Kong wonton soup ($5.95), with sheaves of dark gai lan greens and a tangle of thin egg noodles, makes a light lunch on a hot day and an easy introduction to the traditional side of the menu.
That menu is long and varied, but some themes develop across its pages. One is a series of “salt pepper” dishes, which in practice means various meat and seafood fried in puffy, oily batter under heavy drifts of fried garlic, sliced jalapeño rings and green onion.
The shrimp version ($15.95) arrives in shell, the squid ($13.95) works like a boldly-spiced calamari plate and the pork ($11.95) is a pile of roughly chopped ribs, bony but very luscious.
Just as I started feeling comfortable with this menu, however, I discovered that Soho has a second menu, available only if you ask for it, with a deeper dive on Cantonese dishes. It’s hand-written, and untranslated. But after some tableside consultations with Chueng, this roster yielded that bitter melon dish, almost acrid at first but mellowing into a fascinatingly strong, complex flavor after we garnished it up, and also the broiled oysters ($12.95), which were caked with equal parts ginger and garlic in a mix of soy sauce and oyster liquor.
To put Soho through its paces, I recommend coming with a group that isn’t shy about ordering and sharing unfamiliar dishes. It also helps if your group can hang with uneven service, which can vary greatly depending on the language skills you or your waitress brings to the table. Still, Soho’s robust, traditional cuisine has traveled a long way to get here. I’m more than happy to meet this restaurant halfway.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.