The wife and I paid our first visit to Grasshopper this weekend. With all respect to Detlef -- as everybody knows, a brilliant foodie, a great chowhound, an invaluable local resource -- the cuisine needs tinkering. In the interest of helping out, I'll try to record my impressions as objectively and minutely as possible without pulling any punches.
First off, the place has a nice look and feel. The decor is Asian postmodern -- sleek and contemporary with pronounced Asian allusions that stop just short of being kitschy. Imagine a cross between Lantern and PF Chang. There's a lovely patio and an inviting bar. I imagine most people will find the layout very appealing.
We happened to dine on one of the busier nights of the year, with Duke reopening and dad on hand with his credit card. The place was jammed. Service was a little slow and uncertain, but not more than one would expect so soon after opening, and on such a busy night. The young people handling waitservice were friendly and earnest and clearly trying their best. A real stickler might grumble, but I had no complaint.
The food, however, needs tweaking. We ordered the pork and shrimp dumplings, the coconut crepe with vegetables, the roast pork chow mien, and the chicken and chinese sausage hotpot. Some comments:
DUMPLINGS. There may be an audience for the rest of what we ate, but I find it it hard to believe there is a long-term audience for these dumplings (a serious problem considering the restaurant also serves dim sum). The problem was threefold: 1) The dumpling skin had gone mushy and had completely disintegrated on the bottom. Different brands of wonton wrappers have different properties, some intended for soup wontons, some intended for siu mai, some intended for frying, etc. I recommend continuing the search for a satisfactory brand. 2) The taste was way off. A bit of soy, a bit of garlic, some scallion and ginger juice, some mushroom extract (a brilliant flavor enhancer), perhaps some minced bamboo shoot or water chestnut to cut the density of the meat -- this does the trick. 3) Most seriously, the consistency was terrible, kind of chalky or maybe even pasty. My diagnosis is that the chef is using excessively lean pork and attempting to compensate with binders, maybe flour or cornflour. The key to Chinese dumplings -- all Chinese dumplings -- is to use tons of pork fat. By "tons" I mean 30% and up. The wife and I lose our nerve at about 40%. In addition to binding, pork fat lends the juicy, springy quality that defines a good siu mai. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a healthy dumpling. Grand Asia Market in Cary sells minced pork fat for a reason.
CREPE. This was reasonably tasty -- the coconut provided a nice flavor surprise -- but also an expensive morsel at $5. I would have liked two rather than one.
PORK CHOW MIEN. This was stir-fried wheat noodles with greens and slices of cha siu pork. There were serious problems here as well. A fair portion of our noodles were stuck together into a thick noodle-rope: somebody had forgotten to give them an initial stir when they hit the pot. The sauce was thick and salty, almost like soy paste, and there were only two or three thin slices of pork in the entire dish. This is a value issue, obviously, but the dish needed the textural and flavor contrast that more pork would have provided.
CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE CLAY POT. This was the most interesting dish of the meal: chicken, sausage, bok choy, and mushrooms in a broth. I thought it could pass for light and healthy, but my Taiwanese wife emphatically called it bland. The whole point of a hot pot, she says, is to generate a complex broth. The pork problem was repeated with the sausage: there were perhaps three slices, each the width and diameter of a dime. The anise flavor of the sausage would have lent the dish an interesting undertone. A missed opportunity. I believe the chicken pieces were diced thigh. This was a good choice. Chicken breasts, which tend to be dry, have no real place in Chinese cooking. Chinese HATE breasts.
Price with tip but no drinks was about $38.
I hope these comments are helpful. I wish the restaurant all the best.
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