While I'm not exactly thrilled with one of Charlie Chiang's ad campaigns — "All food taste-tested on Caucasians" — my recent dining experience at the new Chinese restaurant was a delight.
Oh, there were a few flies in the ointment. Service could have been smoother, for instance. But the place has only been open for a few weeks, so the crew is still getting its act together.
They're being trained by experienced employees from the chain's Washington, D.C., flagship restaurants, though. And Christiana Chiang, who started the business with husband Charlie back in 1976, was on premises the night we visited.
- Hours: Open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
- Food: Innovative Chinese
- Service: Our server was friendly and willing but a bit nervous, perhaps suffering from the "new job jitters."
- Atmosphere: Not your typical hotel/motel dining room. The decor is sleek and contemporary, very minimalistic. Alas, there are no sound barriers so don't plan on a private tete-a-tete
- Prices: Appetizers from $3.50 to $16; soups from $2 to $5; entree salads from $6 to $12; house specialties from $14 to $34, other entrees from $8 to $18
- Beverages: Full bar service
- Credit Cards: Most major
- Value: Excellent. The food is flavorful and innovative and prices won't wreak havoc with your wallet
- Our rating: Three stars
- Ratings system: (* -Good. * * -Very Good. * * * -Excellent. * * * * -Extraordinary.)
She went from table to table talking with patrons, obviously anxious to get their opinions. Too few restaurateurs practice such hands-on management techniques; it's easy to tell the ones that make the effort.
That said, let's talk about the food. My guest and I agreed it was a cross between the kind of mainstream fare (wonton soup, chow mein) found at the average family-run Chinese restaurant and the more upscale Asian-inspired creations popular at, say, a P.F. Chang's.
Charlie Chiang's, in fact, has a lot in common with that popular bistro. Numerous menu items are the same, for instance.
One big difference between the two is the decor. At Chang's, the look is Old World Oriental but Chiang's has been decorated in a spare, minimalistic style. I loved the wall treatment which features plaster done in a wavy pattern, like sand drifting on a beach.
I have just two complaints: the chairs could be more comfortable, and the jarring music seemed out of place in such a serene setting.
For starters, the pupu platter — it's called Friends Combo here — got our vote. Priced at $16, it includes five items that can also be ordered individually. We almost fought over the sweet soy glazed short ribs, which were packed with flavor, tender inside but with a crisp exterior sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.
Both the crispy skin shrimp rolls and Shanghai spring rolls were good but on the greasy side. Decent chicken on bamboo skewers and crab wontons rounded out the list of offerings.
I sipped a saketini ($7) made with Momokawa Diamond sake and garnished with a julienned piece of cucumber. My guest opted for a small bottle of Ozeki sake ($4).
From there, we went on to the main event, although I'd like to sample the asparagus and crab soup on another visit.
We chose our entrees from the "Charlie Chiang's recommends" list and heartily endorse both selections.
My honey tempura chicken ($14) contained tender chunks of lightly battered chicken breast tossed in a diabolically delicious pineapple-honey sauce. (Be sure to ask for extra on the side.)
Land and Sea Delight ($15) was a tasty medley of beef, shrimp, scallops and chicken mixed with fresh mushrooms in a spicy sauce, served over white rice.
What else is good?
Seafood lovers have a wealth of options, from salt and pepper jumbo shrimp and kung pao scallops to salmon with soba noodles. In the meat category, look for orange-tangerine steak, lamb Szechuan, sweet and sour chicken, Hunan pork and all manner of lo meins and chow meins.
Special diets are also addressed. Dishes without salt, sugar, corn starch and MSG and vegetarian dishes are included on the bill of fare.
We really didn't need dessert — portions aren't stingy — but for review purposes we sampled something called a banana wrap. It consisted of a cinnamon infused egg roll, whipped cream and chocolate sauce dolled up with a scoop of excellent, fruity sorbet. Frankly, it sounds better than it was.
Bottom line: Charlie Chiang's is a welcome addition to the North Naples dining scene, with food that's not just good but affordable. Choose egg drop soup and the crispy sesame chicken salad, for example, and you'll be out just $10. Numerous substantial entrees are priced at just $9 to $12.