Summary: Standard Chinese food is served with a flair in stylish surroundings.
I have written before about how what I've deemed "Asian Bistros" have taken the Bay Area by storm. These are smallish restaurants, stylishly decorated with innovative uses of both Western and Asian themes, that serve somewhat Americanized (or "bistroized") versions of Asian cuisine at affordable prices. Most of the ones I've gone to are South East Asian, but it's a formula that can work just as well for any sort of food. Indeed, Chef's Experience has taken the concept and has applied it to Chinese food. It even calls itself a "Chinese Bistro."
Our friends Desiree and Grant really like it, so we headed there for a date one Tuesday night (March 2006) when they were babysitting. Though we liked the concept, we weren't as happy with the execution here as in other similar places.
The room itself was quite large with muted beige walls and a large semi-open kitchen and bar that drew attention to its numerous bottles of liquor. While some care had been put into the decoration of the room - they were obviously going for "stylish" here as well - I felt it was somewhat cold and sterile. The room temperature might have contributed to that feeling; I had worn a sweater but I was still cold throughout dinner. The muted lights didn't help - they made the room look dark but not in a good way. Candles or little lamps at each table might have helped.
Chef's menu is brief and includes many standards. The attraction is supposed to be that the ingredients are fresh and that they use no MSG. As I've mentioned before in another review, I'm not sure that that's necessarily a good thing. I'm beginning to think that Chinese food may need MSG to add balance and substance to its flavors. Prices are a bit high for Chinese restaurants but still quite reasonable, most entrees are around $10.
The quality of the food was apparent in the steamed pork buns ($4, I think). The pork slices were large, sweet and not very fatty and there was a good balance of bread to pork. Mike's fried shrimp, on the other hand, had too much breading, so much so that I (who doesn't like shrimp) was able to dip some of the breading in the sweet-sour sauce and eat it as a fried wonton. The breading itself was under-seasoned, but it was tasty with the sauce.
Our main entrees, however, were disappointing. I ordered the beef with black bean sauce. In the right hands (and maybe with a dose of MSG), this dish can be amazing, almost French in its succulence and delicacy; here, it tasted like any other stir fry, perfectly OK to eat, but nothing more. The meat was extremely tender, actually too unnaturally tender for my taste.
We also had the Szechuan chicken, which was fine but not remarkable. The chicken did taste fresh, however.
Chef's main attraction must be its full bar and variety of mixed drinks. According to our waitress, the bartenders are generous with the liquor, so I decided to have a coke instead. Mike had a Margarita and while he felt it wasn't very well blended he did appreciate the generous amount of tequila. In all, he'd order it again.
Chef's can also pride itself on its service. The waitresses were friendly, professional and helpful, and they even do some of the cooking and plating themselves table side. For those who want an spectacle with their dinner, Chef's can oblige.
I'm not a big enough fan of Chinese food to return to Chef's, but it certainly provides an alternative for affordable dining in nice surroundings.
Chef's Experience China Bistro
22436 Foothill Blvd