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Chi’s infuses Asian flavors

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published July 11, 2013 at 3:15 a.m.

Tuna Tataki is one of the sushi bar appetizers at Chi’s Asian Cafe in Riverdale.

Chi's Asian Cafe & Sushi Bar

This video highlights some of the food and atmosphere featured at Chi's Asian Cafe & Sushi Bar in Little Rock. (By Eric Harrison)
[View Full-Size]

For some, Chi’s Asian Cafe & Sushi Bar, Lulu Chi’s new restaurant in Riverdale, is a blessing because it’s closer for those who live and work in the area (or downtown, or in Hillcrest, or in the Heights, or …) than her west and far west Little Rock locations, headquarters Chi’s Dim Sum & Bistro, West Markham Street and Shackleford Road, and the recently revised Chi’s Chinese Cuisine, 17200 Chenal Parkway.

For others, it represents a pretty good additional sushi option in the Riverdale area, where its immediate competition is the venerable Shogun, but neatly positioned between the handful of decent downtown sushi outlets (Hanaroo, Wasabi and, across the river, Benihana) and the Chi-owned Sushi Cafe in the Heights.

Chi and her sons opened the new restaurant in the space on Old Cantrell Road and Mart Drive in what had previously been Union Bistro and, originally, a Lenny’s Sub shop. There’s a nice patio space for when outdoor temperatures drop below the cooking temperature in the kitchen woks.

The decor resembles closely what Chi put in at her Chenal Parkway location, the same tables and chairs and combining traditional Chinese and semi-modern. As with the one out west, the menu is available in printed copies or on video monitors, the latter mostly for to-go orders and the lunch trade. The main difference is an actual sushi bar, with seating for half a dozen customers. The sound system is tuned to the public classical station, so you may find yourself dining to anything from a Bach Brandenburg Concerto to a Mahler symphony.

The upsides of the new restaurant include the output of that sushi bar, ably prepared and beautifully plated by Truong Suk, a Sekisui-trained sushi chef recently reunited with Chi, for whom she previously worked at Sekisui and Crazy Hibachi. And the food off the Asian menu is, by and large, tasty and fresh. With the exception of the separate sushi menu, which features some Japanese appetizers, the menu is mostly Chinese with a couple of Thai-style chicken dishes and a few pan-Asian noodle preparations.

The major downside is that even for fresh, tasty and generous portions, the prices are pretty high. Entrees start at $9.50; seafood and house specialty items, for example, are in the $14-$20 range. A cup of soup is $2. Lunch specials are $7-$8, at least a buck higher than most other places.

Chi’s hot and sour soup ($2 cup, $6 bowl) is a winner in all three restaurants, although they differ slightly in balance, thickness and degree of spice (best one is at the headquarters location, but this holds its own pretty well). Wonton soup (same prices) featured two filling, meaty wontons but the broth was surprisingly bland.

The fried pot sticker dumplings (six for $6.95) were more Japanese gyoza-style than the doughy Chinese version we’ve ordered from the west Little Rock headquarters, and not that impressive. You can order the decent size bowl of Edamame ($4), very lightly salted, if at all, off either the main, sushi or the gluten-free menus.

We fared much better with sushi menu appetizers. The Squid Salad ($7), marinated firm but not rubbery squid strips served over vinegar-pickled cucumber salad, was delicious, not too vinegary, sweet or salty. The Tuna Tataki ($12), six slices of sushi Ahi just barely seared on the outside but cold in the middle, came near-perfectly presented in a small pond of exceptionally well balanced ponzu sauce - again, neither too tangy nor too sweet, both flaws we’ve encountered elsewhere.

We scored two for three on specialty rolls. We enjoyed our OC Roll ($9), rice wrapped shrimp, crab and avocado topped with crunchy bits and a spicy Asian mayonnaise. The Fire Island Roll ($14), shrimp-topped “white tuna” (actually escolar), asparagus and spicy tuna, came (without prior menu warning) in a flaming aluminum foil shell, which made the roll inside taste almost grilled.

The Razorback Roll ($12), with blue crab meat and avocado, topped with alternating strips of (red) tuna and (white) escolar, came with a very light drizzle of sweetish eel sauce. It needed more eel sauce - the roll itself was unusually bland.

Just because a member of our party has a passion for mackerel sushi, we also ordered a two-piece mackerel negiri ($5); the fish was spot on fresh and the plate presentation was gorgeous.

In perusing the menu, our eye went directly to the Mussels in Black Bean Sauce ($14). First order, which we got to go, was not entirely successful. The black bean sauce was superb but approximately a third of the dozen-plus mussels didn’t open in the cooking process, which meant having to get messy - some of them we could pry open by hand, some only with a nutcracker.

We subsequently reordered the dish in house (after complaining slightly about our first attempt), and the kitchen successfully transited the fine line between cooking them long enough so they all opened without overcooking them. We had a bit of a wait, though - the kitchen was out of mussels and, we discovered later, somebody was dispatched up the street to Sushi Cafe to cover the order.

(Chi says, by the way, that the large mussels are flown in fresh on ice and not prepared from frozen, as you will find in some area restaurants.That’s a plus and helps justify the price.)

You’ll see Thai’s Spicy Chicken and Thai’s Curry Chicken ($10 each) on the poultry part of the menu. Three noodle dishes encompass other areas of Asia.

We’ve had Singapore Rice Noodles ($9 for vegetable or chicken, $10 for beef, shrimp or combination) at other Chi’s locations, so we opted for the Thai Style Rice Noodles (also $9 for vegetable or chicken, $10 for beef, shrimp or combination).

We were expecting something along the lines of Pad Thai, but that’s not quite what arrived - the noodles weren’t the thin rice vermicelli mentioned on the menu but thicker, fettuccinelike, wheat-based chow fun noodles, wok-tossed with our combination proteins (beef, chicken, shrimp and fried egg), Chinese-style, in a fairly thick sauce redolent with red pepper flakes.

Our Combination Japanese Udon Noodles ($12, $13) were more of a success, thick, ropey, chewy wheat noodles (think spaghetti on steroids) with the same protein combo, stir-fried with a few vegetables in a rich, brown sauce.

Service was generally pretty good, although on one visit we did have to ask for napkins and our water glasses weren’t regularly refilled, a less forgivable service offense if a customer is only drinking water.

Chi’s Asian shares a tiny parking lot with a tanning salon and a hair salon, so it rents parking space from a business across the street. Due to a certain competition-based feudalism, pay attention to the signs that specify what parking areas “belong” to Chi’s, which to its cross-street neighbor The Fold and which to up-street restaurants Loca Luna and Red Door.

Chi’s Asian Cafe & Sushi Bar

Address: 3421 Old Cantrell Road, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Chinese, sushi

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Large parties

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes (501) 916-9973, (501) 916-9975

Weekend, Pages 27 on 07/11/2013

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