Flavor: A voyage through Asia, with a long layover in China
Ambiance: This was Beanstreets?
While nobody would walk into C.F. Chan’s thinking they’d just gotten off a slow boat to China, the downtown spot in the space formerly occupied by Beanstreets does manage to serve up a solid menu of Far East fare. It’s too new to make Asheville residents already in committed relationships with one of the many Asian-leaning bistros along the Biltmore/Broadway corridor cheat on their current flames, but downtowners still in search of a place to call their own should consider adding its name to their dance cards.
C.F. Chan’s like Ichiban, Wasbai and Sushi-Thai is owned by the Chen family. Their dynasty has now grown so large that the names of all their properties no longer fit on a single chopsticks wrapper. When Kevin Chen, owner of Wasabi, touted the family’s newest venture to Xpress last May, local palates perked up to his mention of dim sum.
C.F. Chan’s is not a dim sum restaurant. The gorgeous eatery may be masquerading under the tagline “Asian Bistro and Dim Sum,” but listing appetizers and desserts on a check-off list, a la every sushi bar in town, does not a dim sum palace make. While it’s legitimate if no fun at all to eliminate the rolling cart from the equation, dim sum in the true Cantonese tradition encompasses a far greater array of dishes from which a family can craft its feast. Six of the 15 savory little dishes offered by C.F. Chan’s at a recent weekday lunch were variations on a dumpling.
The restaurant tames the traditional Chinese line-up eschewing goopy favorites, such as congee, and standards involving animal parts not always available at Ingles, such as steamed chicken feet and diversifying its menu with dishes nabbed from other countries, like the Golden Samosas and Spicy Thai Wings. This isn’t dim sum: It’s Asian tapas.
The dumplings are darling, swaddled in their translucent rice-flour wrappers. But our order of cilantro-scallop dumplings had just a speck of cilantro and failed to offer much more than sustenance.
The Penang beef satay, justly endorsed by our server, was far more memorable. The beef was perfectly cooked, but the joy of the dish wasn’t just in the preparation. The beef, like many of the ingredients presented during our lunch, tasted entirely fresh. (Though I’m still not sure why C.F. Chan’s opts to confound that image of freshness by garnishing many dishes with a blazing-red maraschino cherry.)
Puffs, balls and cakes round out the so-called dim sum list. The taro balls, which looked liked little geodes of starch, were as thought-provoking as they were delicious. Was it a light tempura wash that created the crunchy sheen?
There’s no reason not to stick to the little plates, but placing an entrée order at lunchtime earns the diner a complimentary cup of the daily special soup, a curried coconut-milk concoction the day we visited. The soup, like almost every other dish, was served at a piping-hot temperature. Our expectations rose quicker than the soup cooled, so it was especially disappointing to find the ivory-colored liquid tasted mostly of oil.
Lunch entrees span a good chunk of the Eastern Hemisphere, and include curried chicken, spicy thai tofu, Singapore rice noodles and Vietnamese Pho. The pad Thai was particularly well-executed, and tasted as though it had been made to order rather than ladled out of a giant pre-made pad Thai bin.
Our server swore by the Firecracker Chicken. Sadly, C.F. Chan’s version of the supposedly spicy dish does little to distinguish itself from franchise renditions. It’s no more than a perfectly acceptable sweet-and-sour chicken with an appealing alias, like the prunes now being marketed as dried plums.
The entrées were accompanied by a salad liberally dressed with a sauce so awful we couldn’t stop eating it, trying to parse the strange mix of ingredients that might have produced the unpalatable flavor. Neither the ginger nor the orange rind we detected seemed capable of such treason.
Our server steered us toward the apple puff for dessert, which bore an off-putting resemblance to a McDonald’s apple pie. We decided to take a second shot at ending the meal in a dignified fashion, asking for an order of sesame balls, the red-bean paste-stuffed orbs of dough that are a staple of every dim sum cart worth rolling.
Despite the shortcomings, none of the above is meant to slam the concept: Fresh, lightly spiced, lightly sauced Asian fusion served in a convivial bistro setting where even the bathroom faucets are pinnacles of design is a great idea. It’s workaday, which is perhaps exactly what a downtown restaurant catering to over-stimulated tourists and busy folks on their lunch hours should be.