With a smaller-scale owner, a chain makes a culinary comeback.
After four dumbed-down years under an economies-of-scale-minded corporate ownership, Big Bowl is back. And how.
Here's the at-a-glance timeline.
• 1994: Debuts in Chicago by Lettuce Entertain You (Twin City Grill, Wildfire, Tucci Benucch) and Asian food authority Bruce Cost.
• 1998: Lands in the Twin Cities.
• 2001: New owner Brinker International (the 800-pound gorilla behind Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill) expands to several dozen locations in seven states.
• 2005: Brinker bails, selling back to Lettuce its seven original restaurants (plus a Rosedale branch added under the Brinker regime) and pulling the plug on the rest.
• 2006: Cost and his obviously talented crew revamp.
Sure, Lettuce is a dining bigwig, too. But because it operates on a much smaller scale -- 60 establishments vs. Brinker's 1,600 -- the Lettuce corporate framework gives someone like Cost the leeway to steer his own ship. Because he's not a familiar Food Network talking head, Cost doesn't have the kind of John Q. Public profile that his stature as a nationally recognized teacher, chef and author would otherwise merit (his "Asian Ingredients" -- revised in paperback in 2000 -- is an invaluable kitchen library resource), but he's the real deal.
Anyone nosing around for evidence of a turnaround need only order Cost's fantastic hot and sour soup, an ideal balm against chilly weather. The high-fidelity flavors pop right out of the bowl, with a teasing vinegar sting, earthy mushrooms, fresh eggs and traces of sesame oil dancing in and out of a hearty pork stock. Who needs a flu shot when this age-old Chinese remedy is around?
Ditto the dumpling noodle soup, a steamy bowl of aromatic chicken broth finished with a chicken dumpling, pleasantly bitter -- and vividly emerald green -- bok choy and a pile of noodles just begging to be slurped. Even something as seemingly ordinary as the tall, tangy house-made ginger ales are expertly crafted.
Actually, one taste of just about anything and you know you're in good hands. A vigorous attention to detail and to quality -- blurry at best during the Brinker era -- is evident in just about every dish. No powdered spices, canned curry pastes, third-rate oils or sauces, or frozen prebreaded chicken strips here. The kitchen toasts and grinds its own seeds for its exceptional curries, roasts its own peanuts, builds its own stocks, buys top-grade fish sauces and peanut oils, and purchases what appear to be whole farms of fresh herbs, vegetables and fiery chiles.
Scallops, shrimp and pork are top-quality. Cost has been buying the restaurant's first-rate noodles from the same California woman for years. Even the nicely delicate potsticker wrappers are a revelation to anyone who has gnawed through the leathery versions that seem standard at so many local restaurants.
My favorite Big Bowl routine is to score a seat at the bar (tables are a tough peak-hour commodity) and wolf down a few orders of pan-browned potstickers or the marvelous steamed dumplings -- filled with either juicy chicken and Napa cabbage or plenty of greens, herbs and crunchy peanuts. Then again, I also like to start with a scorching bowl of peanut noodles, cooled by shards of sliced cucumber and a fistful of cilantro stems. Or if I really want to work my brow into a sweat, I kick things off with the sweet-scorching stir-fried green beans.
Then I invariably move into the curries, each boasting skillfully layered, beautifully nuanced flavors and heat levels. Cost isn't shy about cranking up the spice thermostat until it tiptoes toward call-the-fire-department levels. The provocative Thai green vegetable curry is always pleasing, as is the incendiary grilled steak in a red curry broth, but I have to admit a weakness for the kinder, gentler Thai curries: a yellow coconut sauce with vegetables, a kaffir lime-fresno chile curry with shrimp and scallops and a handful of fresh water chestnuts, a peanut-coconut curry with chicken and snow peas. They even look as good as they taste; how often does that happen at a chain?
There are other highlights: fried walleye -- crisp outside, moist inside -- in a pool of hot-cha Szechuan sauce; slices of succulent pork shoulder glazed in a husky barbecue sauce and served over the Twin Cities' best fried rice; a textbook kung pao made with wide wheat flour noodles, nicely firm tofu and plenty of blackened chiles; a cleanly flavored pad Thai topped with velvety salmon; cute steamed buns filled with savory pork.
A build-your-own stir-fry station, a kind of salad bar with a wok chaser, pleases finicky eaters. Desserts -- a nod to American tastes -- aren't the menu's strong suit, with one exception: the flavorful sorbets, made by Sonny's in south Minneapolis. No matter. The generous portions (at similarly generous prices) push the prospect of a postmeal sweet right off the table.
The time-pressed might want to head to Big Bowl Chinese Express (formerly Shanghai Circus), a to-go counter humming inside six metro-area Byerly's and Lunds stores. Because they're prepared in small batches throughout the day -- rather than wilting on a steam table for hours -- most of the short list of stir fries and appetizers retain their punch. With flavors this bright and prices this affordable, Cost and company are steering fast food in a welcome new direction.