In 1990, Diana and Oliver Yu opened a Chinese restaurant in Durham that was unlike any the Triangle had seen before. Called Neo-China, the restaurant’s sleekly modern decor made a dramatic break with tradition. The menu was likewise “neo,” catering to Western palates with descriptions like this one for seafood with pan-fried noodles: “A combination of scallops, jumbo shrimp and lobster meat sautéed with broccoli, carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, jumbo onions, asparagus, snow peas, cauliflower and red bell peppers in a delicate white sauce and served over pan-fried angel hair.”
That was three years before the first P.F. Chang’s opened in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Neo-China proved successful, and two more locations followed in North Raleigh and Cary. Both subsequently expanded their offerings to include trendy Thai and Japanese fare, tweaking their names to Neo-Asia to reflect the change.
Late last year, the ever-adapting Yus closed the Cary location for a major makeover. It reopened in February with a decidedly more casual feel and a new name to match: Goji Bistro.
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The look is vibrant and airy, from the bamboo flooring and blond wood of tables and chairs to the dozens of red glass pendant lights suspended from newly exposed ceiling trusses (a clever visual nod to the new restaurant’s namesake berries). Red curtains with gold tassel tiebacks and calligraphy spanning one wall leave no doubt that Goji Bistro represents a return to its owners’ Chinese roots.
Gone are the sushi and most of the other Japanese dishes that accounted for a substantial part of Neo-Asia’s menu. The Thai offering has been pared back to a handful of favorites. A couple of “Asian hoagies” (including a respectable take on a banh mi) have been added to the menu, but the bulk of the offering is – as it was with the original Neo-China – best described as Chinese with a contemporary twist.
That’s not to say that the menu has taken a step back in time. The new streamlined offering manages to present a more diverse selection than in the past, at least in part because Neo-China’s menu (which at one time had ballooned to include some six dozen entrees) contained many near-duplicate dishes.
Apart from the obligatory spring roll and egg roll, you won’t find anything close to near-duplicates on Goji Bistro’s appetizer list. The offering covers the spectrum from house-made dumplings (pork or shrimp, steamed or wok-seared) to Volcano Shrimp: tempura-battered shrimp in sriracha sauce, served in a martini glass.
Salt and pepper calamari, tender in an exemplary light breading, come with a little dish of salt and pepper on the side for those who like to spice things up a bit. Tempura-battered green beans, served with a spicy mayo dip, are another winner. And if the lettuce wraps remind you of the P.F. Chang’s best seller, that’s because seven of chef Eddie Wang’s 30-plus years of experience were at that chain’s Crabtree Valley Mall location.
The entree selection has been trimmed to two dozen entries, but now offers a more tempting variety of options than Neo-China ever did. At one end is a fairly traditional Mongolian beef that replaces the traditional scallions with an abundance of their milder leek cousins. At the other is Goji hot fish, which serves up crisp-battered filet of flounder and a kaleidoscope of fresh vegetables in a spicy-sweet chile sauce punctuated with goji berries.
The vivid red berries make another appearance in goji berry chicken, where they add their color and their tangy crunch to a medley of batter-fried chicken nuggets, snow peas, water chestnuts, carrots and baby corn. Duck over wok-seared noodles delivers plenty of umami savor – as long as you don’t object to duck fat, of which there’s also plenty. You get half a bird, cut into boneless chopsticks-manageable pieces and stir-fried with the colorful pastiche of fresh vegetables that has been a common thread in all of the Yus’ restaurants.
The menu changes at Goji Bistro go deeper than the colorful presentations that you see on the plate. There’s an entire section devoted to gluten-free fare, and many dishes have been tweaked to make them lighter without sacrificing flavor. Chicken dishes are now made exclusively with white meat – though you’d hardly know it judging by the juiciness of the meat in General Tso’s chicken.
Bar manager Ken Yu, the owners’ son, has assembled a selection of beers, wines, sakes and house specialty cocktails that is well-suited to the new restaurant’s style. He’ll proudly describe each step of making a ginger basil mojito, from squeezing the limes and muddling fresh ginger to selecting the perfect sprig of basil to garnish. He’ll warn you that, because it’s all done to order, the drink takes five to 10 minutes to make. It’s worth the wait.
On the wall across from the bar is a portrait of Diana Yu as a young woman, painted by her husband – an artist, as it happens, and largely responsible for the distinctive decors that have become a trademark in the family’s restaurants. Tangible evidence, you might say, that while Goji Bistro may bear a passing resemblance to P.F. Chang’s, its owners are not fictional.
100 Maynard Crossing Court, Cary
Atmosphere: vibrant and open
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: pacing problems; otherwise friendly and attentive
Recommended: tempura green beans, salt and pepper calamari, dumplings, candy walnut shrimp, goji berry chicken
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.