X.O. marks the spot for tasty Cantonese
Restaurant is dashing, too
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009
From the moment we met, I knew I'd like X.O. Taste Seafood. The youthful restaurant, with siblings in Arlington and Richmond, is stocked with the kind of particulars we food-obsessed delight in seeing in a Chinese restaurant.
Up front, there's a small flock of mahogany-colored ducks hanging behind glass (and on weekends, a line at a counter to order them against the rhythmic sound of chopping). In the back of the dining room, there's the promise of freshness in the form of a lively lobster tank; one occupant causes such a splash when it's removed by a waiter that a busboy is called to mop the wet floor. More than once, my companions and I have found ourselves in a dining room full of Asian people. It's a generalization, but such a crowd at a Chinese restaurant often suggests a kitchen that knows what it's doing.
This one does. Owner Paul Chau employs seven cooks from Hong Kong and around China, and their focus is on the flavors and techniques popularized in Canton, where the seasonings are delicate, steaming and roasting are art forms, and luxury ingredients -- bird's nest, lobster -- are common. (Chau's other restaurants are named Full Kee.) Weighing in with more than 200 dishes, the menu at X.O. would take many meals and many companions to conquer. Random pointing and ordering is not my usual mode of operation in a restaurant, but a diner can feel pretty confident following that strategy here and coming up with something rewarding.
Under "Seafood," sweet and sour flounder makes good on both of those accents, and the crackling whole fried fish is a hot, meaty pleasure. The surprise bonus: tender shrimp scattered across the entree. Vegetable dishes play up all the usual Chinese greens, from string beans to baby bok choy. Tender pea shoots tossed with garlic retain their color and flavor, thanks to just a short time in a hot wok. And I love the light crunch and delicate ginger sauce of the stir-fried Chinese broccoli. The smaller "Pork" category includes a spicy pork chop that's hacked into many pieces, fried to a light crisp and sprinkled with cilantro and bright slivers of jalapeno and garlic; despite the thinness of each slice of meat, it's juicy. The dish came near the end of the meal, and as sated as I was, I devoured it.
Duck can be ordered by the half or whole bird. Either picks up flavor from a rub of sugar, salt and oyster sauce, plus 45 minutes or so in a hot oven. The fowl emerges tan and crisp on the surface and succulent below. A dab of plum sauce is all the enhancement the dish requires at the table.
There are almost 20 ways to explore congee. While I prefer to eat the rice porridge in the morning, it also makes for late-night comfort. No. 165 packs squid, pork skin, peanuts and ground beef with the steaming gruel; fresh ginger injects heat into the mix.
The kitchen takes delicious advantage of all the chicken and pork scraps by turning them into stocks. A rich golden broth and a swirl of fine noodles make for distinctive soups; one of many to consider bobs with light fish balls, a cheap thrill for only $6.50.
The lone special posted on the wall features two 1 1/2-pound lobsters for just $28.95. They can be steamed and moistened with ginger or black bean sauce or, better still, prepared "Hong Kong style": chopped, boiled, fried, then sprinkled with a crumble of ground pork made fiery with jalapenos, ginger, onions and other accents.
X.O. is a reference to X.O. sauce, a Cantonese concoction of dried seafood, onions, and oyster and soy sauces, which was once a hallmark of better seafood kitchens in Hong Kong. (X.O. also confers pedigree, the letters being associated with XO, or extra-old cognac.) Though the sauce can be bought in stores these days, this restaurant whips up its own version using dried scallops and shrimp. Curiously, and despite the restaurant's name, X.O. is used only on a couple of dishes here. The one I tried was terrific. The stars of the show, lightly fried squid and pleasantly chewy jellyfish, got delicious backup from julienned Chinese celery, nutty mushrooms and a scattering of sesame seeds.
It's hard for a kitchen this size to succeed at everything, and not every dish is distinctive. Fried dumplings are no better (or worse) than at a lot of other places, and sour cabbage and squid includes seafood that's a little mushy. Some of the food comes out almost as fast as you can order it, which is great if you're short on time but less appealing if dinner is also the evening's entertainment. Go early and on weekdays if you want to avoid the noise of a crowd.
X.O. is focused on feeding your eyes as much as your stomach. Neat and tidy, the glass-fronted storefront is also one of the most dashing Chinese restaurants I've come across in the area. The walls alternate between powder blue and light apricot; the small bar is snazzy in gold tiles. Even if you're not hungry coming in, you will be once you sit down at a shiny wood table and start watching what looks like a richer, Chinese version of the Food Network playing nonstop on the two plasma screens in the place. (Behold, the chef and his mile-long noodles on TV!)
Forget fortune cookies. Meals here end with a plate of orange wedges at lunch or a house-made dessert at dinner. On my last visit, a cool corn soup with tapioca pearls appeared ahead of the check -- X.O. for sure.
* * *
Lost and Found: I had trouble finding X.O. the first time out. It's not actually on Arlington Boulevard but at an angle to the street (on Patrick Henry Drive, tucked away on the side of a shopping complex).