According to the sign over the entrance, Chopstix is a “Gourmet Sushi Bar.” We step inside, and it doesn’t take long to discover that that’s only part of the story.
The sushi bar itself is a tiny five-seater tucked into the corner of a dining room whose contemporary decor – urns in backlit alcoves, jewel-toned pendant lights, walls of putty accented with stone – was inherited from Rose Garden Asian Bistro, the previous tenant in the Creedmoor Crossing space where Chopstix opened in January.
The menu clearly aims to live up to the setting. Sushi is just part of an extensive pan-Asian offering that includes nearly a hundred Chinese listings and a smattering of Thai and Japanese dishes.
Not a good sign, I think as we contemplate the ocean of choices before us. In my experience, such ambitious something-for-everyone undertakings too often dilute a kitchen’s efforts.
And I must say, the “Gourmet” over the entrance isn’t particularly reassuring.
Then our server approaches the table with a smile and says the magic words: “We have live scallop tonight. Sushi special.” Naturally, I can’t resist.
A few minutes later, all eyebrows at the table go up when the dish arrives. It’s a miniature wonderland on a platter, featuring two scallop shells nestled on a “pond” of crushed ice, set against a backdrop of a bonsai tree and a tiny bamboo gate.
On one shell, petal-thin, silver dollar-size slices of scallop, each one nestled atop a translucent slice of lemon, are arranged in a chrysanthemum pattern. On the other shell, the sushi chef has composed a salad of the outer trimmings of the scallops, minced and tossed with tiny batons of cucumber in a light dressing.
What the dish promises to the eye, it delivers in full to the palate. The scallop slices are meant to be eaten with the lemon – and if you like, with a drizzle of the ponzu sauce that’s provided. I can’t resist trying one bite of scallop au naturel, though, and I’m rewarded with the essence of the sea churned to butter. The minced scallop salad is also a keeper, with the crunch of cucumber and the spiciness of the dressing playing counterpoint to the somewhat chewier flesh of the shellfish trimmings.
Further sampling of the sushi offering proves that the scallops are not – pardon the pun – a fluke. Fish and shellfish are consistently fresh. Nigiri sushi are generous and well-formed, and served at the proper temperature. The selection of specialty rolls isn’t particularly adventurous, but covers the familiar bases well from Rainbow to deep-fried Volcano.
Given the quality of the sushi, it should come as no surprise that BOGO deals are limited (currently, a daily Happy Hour special 3-5 p.m). Owner/sushi chef Justin Chen prides himself on the fact that most of his fish comes from Japanese purveyors with whom he has established strong ties at his other restaurant, Blue Fish in Maryland.
The ambitious variety of the offerings at both restaurants may stem as much from the fact that Chen is a native of China’s Fujian province as it does from a desire to please all comers. Whatever the reason, the kitchen at Chopstix does a respectable job for the most part.
It isn’t up to the high standard set by the sushi bar, mind you. But the Chinese fare in particular is on a par with – and occasionally a notch better than – what you’ll find at your standard strip mall Chinese takeout shop.
I’m not qualified to render a judgment on the egg foo yung, except to say that the Chopstix version did nothing to win me over to a dish whose appeal I’ve never understood. But General Tso’s chicken is competently rendered, as are moo shu pork and a house specialty called Five-O, which serves up shrimp, scallops, chicken, beef and roast pork stir-fried with fresh vegetables in a moderately spicy brown sauce.
Judging by the blandest pad thai I’ve had in recent memory, though, I think it’s safe to say that you venture beyond Chinese borders at your own risk. Tempura shrimp and vegetables are more successful, though the broccoli tends to be overcooked.
In short, next time I visit Chopstix, I’ll take my cue from those words over the entrance. And I’ll happily give them a pass on the “Gourmet” part.
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