Yin & Yang
By David Sharos
Daily Herald Correspondent
Japanese, Chinese cuisines come together in hot entrees,
tasty sushi at adventurous TL’s Four Seasons
Having lived over half a century. I’m already reflecting on some of those do-overs in life should I get another opportunity. One of the things making that list is to immerse myself more in the Japanese/Chinese culture, the Zen thing, the meditation, yin and yang, the self-defense disciplines uniting the body and spirit.
Then there’s the food. I noted in a previous restaurant review that my own yardstick measuring Chinese cuisine began with a little carry-out place on the South Side of Chicago. The stuff inside those classic white cartons was hot, fresh and relatively cheap.
Then I went to TL’s Four Seasons in Bartlett and discovered the cuisine of Chef Bo Xu, who has cooked meals at the finest hotels in the Szechwan province for the president and governors of China, competed for three years in national cooking tournaments and authored a book. Suddenly, that yardstick has changed.
“We don’t make our food with a lot of sauces that cover up the individual flavors,” said owner Shawn Li, who later explained the nature of Xu’s cooking. “A lot of the Chinese or Japanese food people eat here is Americanized. In China, you can’t get things like egg foo young or fortune cookies or even chop suey. Some people there would regard that as garbage.”
Yikes! I’ve eaten tons of that stuff, but as we made our way through the menu, my companion and I discovered more about this cuisine than we had ever realized.
Li has blended two distinct food groupings into his menu. One side of his cardboard paper-type listing contains Chinese cuisine – a “harmonization of mix and match” as he calls it – including classics like Kung Pao, sweet and sour, Mongolian orange peel, fried rice and stir-fry dishes. You can also order “Chef Bo’s Recommendation” list which includes chicken, beef tenderloin, red snapper, garlic chicken and other dishes.
Flip the menu over and you enter the Japanese world, with teriyaki, tempura, sukiyaki and katsu dishes, plus a separate list of sushi entrees, amazingly prepared by another “Icon Chef,” Nashimoto Matasaka, a 28 year veteran who was also drafted by Li.
“We have an excellent staff here, who were willing to leave their country and come with me to this restaurant,” Li explained. “We have all become the best of friends.”
We visited the restaurant on a Friday night and were immediately impressed with the fresh and modern appearance of TL’s – named after Li and his partner Tony Zeng, who oversees another eatery in the Western suburbs. Yellow walls and light colored wood add an almost urban feel to the place. A glass-enclosed vestibule allows diners to wait inside, where pictures and biographies of the two master chefs are proudly displayed.
A bar area is found immediately inside, and there are tables running parallel to the sushi bar at the far end of the restaurant where diners can watch Matasaka make his artful little rolls.
Our meal began from the Chinese side with crab Rangoon and crispy shrimp, and from the Japanese side some tempura shrimp and vegetables. The rangoon came folded up with four corners pinched together and stuffed with savory cheese. We asked about the presentation, and Li told us the crispy pockets were formed that way to “add more crunchy bites” to the dish.
I loved the tempura, which was served piping hot with a light and crunchy coating. The two shrimp were enormous and probably my favorite of all the appetizers we ate. Seasonal vegetables dictate what will accompany the shrimp, and our choices were green pepper, an asparagus spear and broccoli.
The sauces provided were thin and not all that flavorful, but don’t make that a deal breaker.
We also enjoyed the crispy shrimp, which came dusted with sesame seeds. A sweet coating enveloped these tender beauties and added richness to the dish.
Sushi has never been on my play list, but following the “when in Rome” edict, we decided two jump in and order a Sakura roll and something called a “Hand Grenade.” It turns out that sushi is not just about raw fish, and the Sakura roll came with shrimp, crab, cream cheese, cucumber, and then was layered with avocado and a warm mayonnaise sauce. My dining companion nearly polished off the whole thing herself and proclaimed it on of the best things she had eaten in a long time.
The Hand Grenade (sorry, I have to say it) exploded with flavor and featured a prawn and baby shrimp wrapped in seaweed and covered with a spicy garlic mayonnaise and some fiery seasonings. It sat atop an orange slice and deserves points for flavor as well as presentation. If you’re as much of a neophyte about sushi as I, try these dishes.
For dinner, we chose two dishes from the Chef Bo list, including black pepper garlic beef tenderloin and a Szechwan scallop dish. Both were served with soup and some sticky rice.
Li told us his food costs are “at least 30 percent more” than other restaurants. Based on the quality of his products, he may be right. The garlic beef dish was made with Black Angus and was spicy but incredibly tender. Like all the dishes, this came without sauce to ladle over the rice, which had a nutty and sweet taste.
The scallops were also among the best I’ve tasted. No gritty or rubbery texture, and each of the silver-dollar sized medallions was about three-quarters of an inch thick.
I was impressed with the quality of the food products used here from top to bottom, given how low the prices at TL’s actually are.
Dessert consisted of a few unique items, including a sesame rice ball filled with red bean paste, and a sweet potato yarn cake made with steamed and mashed potatoes, sticky rice powder and lotus flavor. We drizzled some of the accompanying honey over both of these which enhanced their subtle flavors.
We also tried some Japanese ice cream – light golf ball-sized scoops of the usual dairy product uniquely wrapped (again) in a light sticky rice coating.
This allowed us to pick up the vanilla and mango-flavored ice cream we order and almost eat it like a cookie. All of these choices may seem odd to the American pallet, but that, after all, is the point.
Eating should be more than just something to stay alive, and for the adventurous veteran as well as the uninitiated, the dining experience at TL’s is unique and stimulating. A crowd of regulars has already discovered the place; we saw Li calling out names to dozens of patrons who visited that night. With Bartlett firmly committed to its new Town Center development, this should be a welcome eatery with solid support for a long time to come.
© 2005 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.