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XO Taste VS Hong Kong Restaurants (Long)

A month ago, I wrote that the sushi, tempura, yakitori and tonkatsu we ate in Japan were significantly better than the versions we get in the DC area. (I’ve never eaten at Makoto so I can’t comment on DC’s kaiseki meals.) I also wrote that my husband and I didn't feel an equivalent divide between the food we'd been eating in Beijing and the food we eat at XO Taste (XOT). I promised to report back after we had eaten in Taiwan and Hong Kong, arguably the cities with the best Chinese cuisine. Now, I'm making good on that promise.

We ate beef noodle, the national dish of Taiwan, in the company of a Taipei native at his favorite beef noodle place, Silver Mark. We thought this homey dish was one of the best things we've ever eaten. The stock was both insanely rich after a long simmer with plenty of meat and bones and beautifully seasoned to achieve a nice balance of beefiness with faintly sweet and faintly spicy flavors. (The guide who had been taking us around the island also joined us for dinner, but she wasn't too enthusiastic about this version. When we later asked her what was wrong with the taste, she said that she -- and the younger generation -- prefers the level of chili spicing to be so high that it becomes painful to eat. We’ll agree to disagree!) I have no idea whether there is an equivalent dish that is part of Hong Kong cuisine and whether XO Taste offers it. We'll definitely be on a local quest since we’ve become great fans of this dish. So, as an aside, if anyone knows of a good source of Taiwanese beef noodle, preferably in N. Virginia, we'd appreciate a recommendation.

I'm happy to report that XO Taste very much holds its own against the food we ate in Hong Kong. What makes this comment even more interesting is that I’m comparing a local neighborhood restaurant to Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong. Here are the details.

XO Taste doesn't offer dim sum, so it’s irrelevant that the ones at Fragrant Rice in Kowloon are wonderful, even if they are. However, I can make a head-to-head comparison with the marinated jellyfish that began our meal. We ate jellyfish for the first time at XO Taste the night before we left for our trip. A friend, a Hong Kong native, had been enthusiastic about XOT’s version claiming it tasted “just like home.” With a recommendation like that, we had to try this dish before our trip. We agree; the version at XOT is just like Fragrant Rice’s version.

I could legitimately say that XO Taste’s congee was better than the version we ate in Hong Kong, but that would be manipulating the data. We ate congee as part of a buffet breakfast at our hotel in Hong Kong. While the buffet version was tasty enough, it was tepid and, therefore, not as good as the dish when served fresh from the kitchen at XO Taste. The add-ins at the buffet were different from the enoki mushroom and corn versions that we have enjoyed at XOT, but the hotel options were also appealing.

As I said, our three dinners in Hong Kong were at Michelin-starred restaurants; Yung Kee, Golden Leaf and Man Ho all earned one Michelin star in the 2010 guide. (These were chosen for their proximity for out hotel.) The service and décor at the last two places were leagues better than that of XO Taste. However, food-wise, the difference between these Michelin-starred restaurants and XOT was not as great as the difference we noted in Japan. In fact, none of the restaurants I listed served a meal that dish and after dish was significantly better than a meal from XO Taste. Golden Leaf produced a meal that included two super-star dishes, including the best barbecued pork and duck we’ve ever eaten. Everything else was enjoyable. At Man Ho, we ate a meal that included two super-star dishes. The remaining dishes were, similarly, completely enjoyable. At Yung Kee, we also had two extra-ordinary dishes accompanied by one truly indifferent dish and rounded out by other very good dishes. Typically, my husband and I eat at XO Taste once a week. I don’t believe we’ve ever ordered a meal containing two swoon-inducing dishes; however, we usually hit one such dish per meal and the other food is really appealing. The sublime dishes from XO Taste are every bit as swoon-producing as those we ate in Hong Kong, and their routine level of cooking isn’t that far below the routine level of the remaining dishes we ate in Hong Kong.

Incidentally, our evening at Yung Kee was notable for two things: our server’s assumptions about our exposure to Chinese food and confirmation that a Michelin-rating in Asia seems to be based on the food much more than on the other aspects (e.g. service, or thickness of the fabric used as the tablecloth or the dimensions of the napkin) that come into play for Western rankings.

Server’s assumptions: When we asked for recommendations at both Yung Kee and Golden Leaf, the first words out of the server’s mouth were “sweet and sour pork.” At the former, I asked if she had recommended that dish to us simply because we were Americans or whether there was something special about Yung Kee’s version. Then, I asked each server to recommend some other dishes. The Yung Kee server apparently took offense at my question because she walked away without offering a recommendation, and we literally never saw her again the entire meal. My husband and I made our choices after reading the menu and, then, sat for a considerable amount of time until a different server came over to take our order. The server at the Golden Leaf restaurant recommended the grouper with conpoy (dried scallop) and onions in red wine. That turned out to be one of the two amazing dishes of the meal.

Michelin standards: At Golden Leaf and Man Ho, the décor and service are Asian versions of Michelin-restaurants in Europe. However, neither Birdland, a Tokyo yakitori restaurant, nor Yung Kee looks like a Michelin-rated restaurant. I had expected this based on reading the China and Japan Chowhound boards. We certainly don’t require that our restaurants be fancy, and frankly, we appreciated the fact that prices at those two places were more moderate than the prices at the fancier places so this is an FYI rather than a complaint.

I’ll end with a disclaimer. I’m not in any way connected with XO Taste in spite of the cheerleader tone of my post. By my standards, we have a local restaurant that gets on-the-ground food right, and this detailed account of our trip is my effort to back up that claim.

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  1. Closest you'll get to authentic beef noodle soup in NoVA is at A&J in Annandale. It's not Cantonese, so you won't find it in XOT. You can, however, ask for the beef stew or beef tendon noodle soup at XOT which is similar, though it will have the thin egg noodles (not the wheat noodles that A&J uses).

    2 Replies
    1. re: dpan

      If you order noodles at A & J, ask for the 'big' or 'wide' noodles. Those are the handmade noodles as opposed to the packaged. They're not great, but they do add to the experience.

      Or you could simply mark 大 next to the noodle dish on the menu when you order.

      -----
      A & J Restaurant
      1319 Rockville Pike C, Rockville, MD

      1. re: dpan

        I ordered the beef brisket soup with wonton instead of noodle yesterday, it was wonderful. Lots of tendon and chunks of beef. It's yummy with rice noodle also.

      2. Which dishes at XO Taste have you had that are "swoon worthy"? I'm anxious to try!

        2 Replies
        1. re: scotcheroo

          This list ought to get you started.

          I adore the won ton soup. The stock is laced with ginger and the won tons themselves are over-stuffed with shrimp.

          The shrimp dumpling soup is also quite wonderful. The stock is milder but the dumplings are even more filled with shrimp.

          My favorite lobster preparation is the version with spicy meat.

          There's a yellow chives dish on the menu that is prepared with sea cucumber. I'm not wild about sea cucumber (although we had glorious soy-braised sea cucumber in Beijing) but we ask for the dish to be prepared with shrimp instead of sea cucumber. Great eating.

          I really love the shrimp paste stuffed with a scallop in black bean sauce. Once the preparation was a dismal failure; the shrimp paste was rubbery. Happily, that has been the exception. Most of the time, this dish is yummy.

          The dish of fried calamari will rival any version of the same you've eaten in a great Italian restaurant. No marinara sauce, obviously, but frying with such consumate skill that it needs no enhancement.

          Possibly my absolute favorite dish is scallion oil chicken. The accompanying sauce of ginger just makes the chicken soar.

          1. re: Indy 67

            Wow i'm starving now. Thanks for the recs!

        2. The original comment has been removed
          1. I don't have much to say about how XO Taste stacks up to Hong Kong, as I have not been since I was a teenager. But on a recent trip to China, I did eat in a Cantonese restaurant in Shanghai. And of course I had some stir-fried food in quite a few other places.

            I've been to XO Taste three times. Once with a group of five Chowhounds, and twice with my family. The first meal showed some promise though nothing stood out. The next meals confirmed this for me.

            Probably the best thing I've had is the wonton soup which has surprising depth of flavor in the broth and the huge shrimp dumplings. The roast meats are fine, not that they are better than other places like Chu Co Saigon, the Chinese restaurant in Eden Center.

            So far, I would have to say the wok skills are just not there to compare at all with a what I had in China. Not even close. Though I do have to say the same thing with every other Chinese restaurant I've eaten at in the States. The way they seal in the flavor with just a slightly clinging sauce on the plate.... for me it was another world.

            Again, can't compare it to HK, but I did have the pleasure of eating turbot with fresh chilis, roast goose, shallot root salad, and sauteed morning glory leaves at Hengshan Cafe in Shanghai, and I can't compare it at all to the menu at XO Taste.

            The only skill level I can compare that to in this area is at Grace Garden in Odenton, and even then you have to order some of the specialty dishes at least a day in advance and go off menu.

            -----
            Eden Center
            Falls Church, VA, USA, Falls Church, VA

            Grace Garden
            1690 Annapolis Rd Ste A, Odenton, MD 21113

            7 Replies
            1. re: Steve

              After reading this thread, I was very excited to learn that there’s a place in this area can compare with the reputable restaurants in HK since I am from HK. So, I went to XOT last night, tried out a few dishes and realized I have to agree with most of Steve’s comments.

              Wok skill (‘wok hay’) was hard to found from the stir fried snow pea leaves with garlic cloves dish I had. The eggplant short ribs casserole had a good flavor in general but the short ribs were coated with too much corn starch and treated with way too much baking soda!?; hence it had a chemical after taste. It could have been a great dish if the meat was treated differently. Also had a roast pig and scallion chicken duo. Think I was lucky that I got the rib/belly cut of the roast pig. The skin was crispy and the meat was juicy too. Really enjoyed it. The chicken had good flavor, however it was a bit overcooked. The fish maw, crabmeat, & egg white congee was a great concept except the crabmeat had too much frozen seafood taste and the congee base texture was too starchy without much of the rice aroma in it. Lastly, we had a bowl of shrimp wonton and I found the wonton skin was a bit too thick. For the filling, the pork fat cubes were too big and had too much in a dumpling (in other words, the shrimp & pork fat ratio is off). However, I found the shrimp in the filling was cooked to the decent texture which I could still feel the crunch when I bite into the dumpling. The broth was just a bit nicer than the MSG broth you can get from any typical Chinese carryout restaurants here, but still hard to say it is up to par. However it did have some yellow chives in it that help to build the depth. (Just a side note, chowhound has an awesome discussion about HK’s best wonton noodles: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3990...

              )

              It’s misfortune that some of the dishes from the 3 reputable restaurants in HK that the OP tried didn’t deliver any exceptional authentic flavors compare to the ones served by XOT. However, I know there are many other restaurants (even the mid-tired ones) in HK are able to execute the cuisine that is up to par. Maybe try to find references from the HK foodies’ blogs instead of the Michelin Guide for HK. Like dpan said, this 1st Michelin Guide of HK did raise a lot of doubts. I also follow these chowhounders: Charles Yu, SkylineR33, FourSeasons, and peech for their expert food reviews. I just hope you’ll get to experience the great Cantonese food that HK can offer in your future visits. Happy Chowing!

              1. re: lemonginger

                You've made an incorrect assumption when you write that I selected my HK choices based on Michelin stars. In fact, I relied heavily on the guidance of the chowhounders you mention. Here's a small sampling of the comments that steered me to the restaurants we chose.

                In the following thread, those Chowhounders praise Golden Leaf's dim sum, but Charles Yu goes on to recommend its cooking generally.
                (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3183...)

                In the following thread, FourSeasons, Peech, and Charles Yu all write enthusiastically about Golden Leaf's overall cooking as a direct response to a question I posted. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6849...

                In that same thread, FourSeasons explicitly suggests I eat at Man Ho. Downthread, Charles Yu places Man Ho's roast goose above Yung Kee's.

                I'm not going to continue to exhume every post I read prior to my trip. I've made my point that I wasn't swayed by stars alone.

                I've never eaten any of the dishes you fault at XO Taste.

                With the exception of marinated jellyfish, we never were able to make a head-to-head comparison of XOT's dishes with the identical preparation at our Hong Kong restaurants. All I can do is repeat that by using a subjective swoon-factor, the Hong Kong places did not beat out XOT in a lopsided victory. In spite of not having eaten the meals we ate in Hong Kong, if you still think I'm wrong, we'll agree to disagree.

                1. re: Indy 67

                  They were simply trying to point out to you that the dishes you tasted at XOT weren't really what the Chinese consider "restaurant dishes", and that from your OP it was extremely confusing about whether you were comparing XOT's food quality with that of the Michelin restaurants that you also mentioned in detail.

                  Also, the fact that you may view things differently since you are not part of the culture or at least used to it on the same level as a Chinese/Hong Konger wasn't meant to be insulting, but just an observation of the interesting POVs that arise out of cultural and geographical familiarities.

                  No need to get defensive, really. We are all just trying to understand each other and throw out our own opinions, not question your gastronomic integrity.

              2. re: Steve

                Can you tell us about Chu Co Saigon, have not seen it there and the shopping center website doesn't seem to show it. Is it the supermarket with the hanging meats in front?

                1. re: chowsearch

                  No, it's not the supermarket.

                  It's actually Cho Cu Saigon, my mistake. It is in Eden Mall, the middle interior 'courtyard.'

                  Follow this link:
                  http://www.edencenter.com/centers.php...

                  The roast meats are very good, particularly the roast pig.

                    1. re: chowsearch

                      At Grace Garden's the Dan-Dan Noodles is a great family plan dish, with noodles in the middle of the table, and a variety of toppings around it. Diners can choose what toppings they want, can avoid the hot sauce if its not for you.

                      Nancee J. Swartz

                      -----
                      Grace Garden
                      1690 Annapolis Rd Ste A, Odenton, MD 21113

              3. Also the duck, fish, quail and crispy eggplant is good. I been here a few times and each time, the food is excellent. In terms of authentic chinese food, it is by a long shot the best in Baltimore, and can hold its place even if you compare it with the places in Metro DC. Only drawback, service is can be very slow when crowded.

                Nancee J. Swartz