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Dining Review: CO in North Hills is more than a trendy Asian fusion restaurant

CO’s Curry Laksa ‘s contains shrimp, shredded chicken, bun rice noodles, shredded cucumber, thai basil, baby bok choy that is served in a spicy coconut broth. CO in North Hills is part of North Hills Restaurant Week.
CO’s Curry Laksa ‘s contains shrimp, shredded chicken, bun rice noodles, shredded cucumber, thai basil, baby bok choy that is served in a spicy coconut broth. CO in North Hills is part of North Hills Restaurant Week. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Entering CO, it’s easy to get the impression that this is just one more fashionable feather in the cap for the Park District at North Hills, a retail-and-residential complex that has earned a reputation as a magnet for trendy concept restaurants.

The sleek modern decor certainly fits the image. It’s highlighted by a series of framed black-and-white photographs with an Asian theme against a backdrop of Chinese lacquer red and black.

A first look at the menu checks off every Asian food trend you can think of, reinforcing that image. Poke bowls? Check. Hand-made dumplings? Check. Banh mi? Check. Noodle dishes? Multiple checks, including the obligatory ramen and pho.

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll begin to spot the clues that CO is anything but a slick concept developed by some corporate marketing department. The first one to catch my eye, tucked in among the ramen and pho variations under the “Broth Noodles” heading, is a dish called curry laksa.

Malaysian in origin, curry laksa is a rare find in these parts. I’ve only come across it at two restaurants: Rasa Malaysia in Chapel Hill, and Merlion, the Singaporean restaurant that preceded it in that spot. Definitely not the sort of dish that a corporate marketing department would put on the menu at a trendy concept restaurant.

Unless you want to call Greg Bauer the marketing department. Bauer, who owns all seven CO locations, first had curry laksa while serving as a Marine in Southeast Asia. He liked it so much that, when he opened the first CO in Charleston, S.C., in 2012, he put it on the menu — against the advice of friends in the business, who told him it wouldn’t sell because people weren’t familiar with it. Curry laksa has since become the restaurant’s signature dish.

Well, no wonder. CO’s updated take on the classic dish serves up a tangled skein of rice noodles and shredded chicken in a spice-fragrant broth reminiscent of a yellow coconut curry, and tops it off with an artful arrangement of baby bok choy, shredded cucumber and plump grilled shrimp. A side plate of bean sprouts, fresh basil, cilantro, jalapeño and a lime wedge round out a presentation that satisfies cravings for Thai and Vietnamese in a single dish.

Curry laksa isn’t the only instance of Bauer’s willingness to go against the grain. Listed under the “Wok Noodles & Rice Dishes,” among the expected pad thai, udon and hibachi suspects, you’ll find com chien, a Vietnamese fried rice dish riddled with fresh vegetables and salty-funky Shanghai sausage, and a fried egg if you like.

Then there’s the pressed salmon and avocado roll, which crashes the party under the “Makimono and Pressed Sushi” tent, elbowing its way in among the likes of Firecracker, Super Crunch and Rainbow. The “roll,” inspired by a traditional style called oshizushi, is formed by pressing the components — in this case, a savory departure from traditional sushi rice called maze gohan rice, topped with salmon and avocado — in a specially made box before slicing it into neat rectangles. Garnished with translucent-thin slices of lemon and dabs of lemon aioli, it’s a surefire cure for the same-old-same-old-sushi-roll blues.

All of which is not to say that those seeking the comfort of the familiar won’t find it here — with the caveat that even dishes with recognizable names often get tweaked with Bauer’s (or corporate chef Masanori Shiraishi’s) personal touch.

Hankering for some wings? Malaysian chili wings, marinated in coconut milk, grilled and tossed in a sauce seasoned with pineapple, ginger, lemongrass and chili sauce will scratch the itch — especially if your taste leans more to sweet than savory.

In the mood for some dumplings? How about edamame gyoza, with a sesame-soy vinaigrette? Beef and kimchi dumplings are a welcome change of pace, too, though I’d like a little more kimchi oomph in the filling.

As a fan-bordering-on-addict of authentic Thai som tam, I wouldn’t mind a little more fish sauce in the green papaya salad, either. That’s my personal taste, though, and I’m happy to concede that CO’s version — crunchy julienne green papaya and cabbage riddled with char-siu pork and shrimp in a citrusy-sweet lime vinaigrette — is a better fit for its contemporary pan-Asian menu, and quite tasty in its own right.

When I spoke to Greg Bauer on the phone a few days after my visits, I asked him if he still lives in Charleston. “My wife lives in Charleston,” he half-jokingly replied, “I live on the road.”

That’s because Bauer is constantly traveling from restaurant to restaurant to make sure everything is up to his standard. His hands-on approach is evident in everything from the menu (a tribute to the foods he came to love in Southeast Asia) to the decor (those vintage photos of film star Nobu McCarthy were a gift from a friend) to the eclectic music (he personally selects the playlist).

It’s anybody’s guess how many more restaurants Bauer can add to the CO chain before getting overwhelmed. For now, it’s safe to say that the Raleigh location’s contribution to the local dining scene is far more substantial than a feather in a cap.

CO

101 Park at North Hills St., Raleigh

919-258-2070

eatatco.com

Cuisine: contemporary pan-Asian

Rating: 3 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: sleek and modern with an Asian accent

Noise level: moderate

Service: welcoming and attentive

Recommended: pressed salmon and avocado roll, curry laksa, com chien

Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; vegan and gluten-free menus available; patio; limited on-street parking; additional parking available in both decks in buildings adjacent to the restaurant.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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