If You Knew Suzi...

New China Grill Proves Suzi Yi Is a Restaurant Star

photograph by John Anderson

Suzi's China Grill

7858 Shoal Creek, 302-4600
Sun-Thu, 11am-10pm
Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm

In this age of celebrity chefs, it's somewhat rare to see a non-cooking restaurateur put her personal stamp on an establishment, although many cities have at least one such star. Nationally, there are Drew Nieporent in New York and Rich Melman in Chicago. Closer to home, Houston has Tony Vallone. Though she's nowhere near as famous as those three men, Austin's most visible non-chef restaurateur has to be Suzi Yi. Suzi (no last name necessary) is the hard-working restaurant front-woman who makes every diner at her two eponymous Chinese establishments feel like her special guest. Personal hospitality, comfortable surroundings, and consistently reliable food are her secrets to success. These days, Suzi hustles between the popular original Suzi's Chinese Kitchen on South Lamar and her six-month-old Suzi's China Grill at Shoal Creek and Anderson Lane.

The new Suzi's location has several advantages over the original. The open kitchen offers patrons seated at the bar an opportunity to observe meals being prepared in nine blazing woks. Full bar service is available, including several cocktails designed especially for the restaurant and a wine list featuring mostly American vintages available by the glass or bottle. The small outdoor seating area off the bar catches the afternoon shade. The most noteworthy thing about Suzi's new location is the total metamorphosis of the actual building. Talented Austin restaurant builder Frank Seely took a run-down, generic, corner CoCo's/Jo-Jo's outlet and transformed it into a distinctive, inviting, classy, individual restaurant. The tall, airy entry opens into an interior done in shades of sponged pale green and muted yellow contrasted with forest green and a stained, polished concrete floor. The booths, tables, and comfortable chairs are dark wood and forest green vinyl. Tasteful mini-blinds cover the windows facing the nearby freeway. It's as if there was an attractive restaurant in this building all along, just waiting for the right magician to reveal it.

Please don't assume that I've gone on about the lady restaurateur and the expert contractor because there's not much to say about the food. Nothing could be further from the truth. The expanded menu at Suzi's China Grill reflects the fact that this location has a larger kitchen prep area to accommodate a selection of salads, dumplings, and noodle dishes not offered at the south store. The appetizer menu offers several dumplings and spring rolls, but by far my favorite choice from the list is the Lettuce Wraps ($4.95 for vegetarian, $5.95 for chicken). These dishes are not only distinctive because they use iceberg lettuce to great advantage but because of the subtle contrasts in flavor, texture, and temperature. Chicken or vegetables are quickly sautéed in a spicy brown sauce and served warm with a pile of lettuce leaves for wrappers. A few bites of warm, tasty filling in a cool, crisp lettuce shell are just the right light bites to whet the appetite for more.

photograph by John Anderson

While the dinner menu offers Chinese standards with beef, pork, chicken, and seafood, there are also several successful vegetarian options, one of which is my favorite vegetable dish of the year to date. Don't miss the Szechwan String Beans ($7.50) -- tender green beans sautéed with a mixture of rice wine, garlic, and ginger and served with rice -- which makes a filling vegetarian entrée or a wonderful vegetable side dish to share with a group. From the seafood menu, we sampled both the Orange Peel Shrimp ($11.95) and the Basil Shrimp ($11.95). Both dishes were marked with a small chili pepper to denote hot and spicy foods, but the spiciness of the Orange Peel Shrimp with hot chili and sun-dried tangerine zest was overwhelmed with a cloyingly sweet sauce. The Basil Shrimp, however, had carefully balanced flavors of musky Shiitake mushrooms, sweet basil, tangy lemongrass, and earthy garlic in a pleasantly hot sauce with plump, tender shrimp.

If you're in the Northwest area at midday, Suzi's lunch specials are worth a look. Check the chalkboard for the daily special selections, all of which come with a soup of the day, a fried dumpling or crab rangoon, and a healthy scoop of fried rice. Two recent reliable choices were Chicken and Shrimp with Asparagus ($6.95) and a Grilled Ruby Trout Salad ($7.50). Though the term "salad" didn't exactly prepare me for a dish comprised of a trout fillet atop a bed of thin noodles, it still made a pleasing meal dressed with a mildly sweet brown sauce accented with chopped scallions and cilantro, paired with steamed baby bok choy. The chicken dish was more straightforward, offering tender pieces of asparagus sautéed with strips of chicken breast meat and small shrimp in a robust, peppery sauce, hot enough to tingle the tongue without bringing tears to the eyes.

Suzi has taken great pains to train her hosts and waitpeople in the art of personable service because even she can't be in two places at once. Everyone I came in contact with was pleasant and eager to please. My only complaint during a recent lunch visit is that the some of the waitpeople serving nearby tables were a little too eager to begin their end-of-shift side duties (refilling salt shakers and sugar bowls, sweeping their stations), well before the lunch crowd in the dining room had thinned out. While I understood their haste to finish the tedious daily tasks necessary to reset the dining room for dinner, as a restaurant patron I didn't appreciate feeling rushed to vacate my table. My friendly waitress brought the check and a fortune cookie which proclaimed, "You are more likely to give than to give in." Suzi's China Grill offers a genuinely warm personal welcome, classy, comfortable surroundings, consistent food quality and insightful fortunes. What more could you ask from a Chinese restaurant?

Vegetarian Planet

by Didi Emmons
(Harvard Common Press, $14.95 paper)

Vegetarianism is about more than uninspired stir-fries, a fact that chef and cookbook author Didi Emmons drives home in her 550+-page tome on vegetarian cooking, Vegetarian Planet. Emmons' book is enormous, with some 350 recipes that are big on flavor and long on imagination. There is a chapter dedicated to dumplings that goes way beyond the standard Asian varieties and 30 pages of recipes for veggie burgers and sandwiches, among them a one-of-a-kind curried carrot-walnut burger spiked with fennel seeds and cilantro.

Chef at The DeLux Cafe in Boston, Emmons spent nearly two years cranking out her meatless dissertation, testing recipes on Sundays when the DeLux, a rock & roll bar-cum-restaurant, was closed. Although the thirtysomething chef readily admits that she's not a strict vegetarian herself (she was a vegan once, oddly enough while employed in a cheese shop), she feels most at home when cooking with vegetables and grains. Inspiration for her enticing recipes -- from mashed potato pierogi to asparagus wasabi tempura to Salvadoran pupusas -- came while "traveling around the globe" within the confines of the U.S.

Although formally trained at France's La Varenne cooking school, Emmons admits that she has a greater affinity with cooking traditions that rely less heavily on meat than does traditional French food. The tastes of Vietnam, China, India, and the Middle East figure prominently in Vegetarian Planet, with Emmons championing the fact that the ingredients necessary for making dishes from these countries are now widely available.

In Vegetarian Planet, Emmons displays a heavy hand with herbs and spices (ginger, lemongrass, and coriander seed are favorites), a trait for which she credits fellow cookbook author and former employer Steven Reichland. "Steven taught me to be fearless about herbs and spices," Emmons explained during her recent book signing at Central Market. "He is very knowledgeable when it comes to ethnic foods, and has this great `cooty cabinet' -- a place full of esoteric, cutting-edge spices -- that allowed me to experiment."

When she takes the time to cook at home, Emmons says she prefers to whip up a quesadilla or two and some homemade salsa. But her favorite recipe in Vegetarian Planet hails from Thailand. "I'm not a big fan of tofu myself," says Emmons when she reads my surprise at her recipe of choice, a Thai tofu with red curry sauce over coconut-scallion rice. "But this is so wonderful," she insists. "It's very fragrant, with lime leaves and peanuts and the rich rice." Whether tofu turns you on or not, Emmons' Vegetarian Planet is bursting with appealing, original ideas for meat-free meals, one for almost every day of the year. -- V.B.W.

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