Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dish on Dining: Sino

Stylish Shanghai Chic in San Jose
377 Santana Row, San Jose
PH: 408.247.8880
Dim sum daily, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, Sun.–Tues., 4–10 p.m., and Wed.–Sat., 4 p.m.–midnight
Reservations, credit cards accepted
Web site

Because I don’t own a car, my restaurant reviews are limited primarily to San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland—where mass transit allows me to dine at the countless choices of fine eateries in this part of the Bay. But last weekend, I made a special trip to San Jose’s Rodeo-Drive-wannabe Santana Row for an especially good reason—a birthday dinner for my friend Jessie.

Jessie’s partner, John, planned a surprise dinner party for about 20-plus guests at the lush Sino Restaurant and Lounge, the beautifully designed room of Chris Yeo, who created Straits Café in San Francisco (and later, Palo Alto). Sino is Yeo’s attempt to bring a high-end and hip (translation: pricey) Chinese restaurant to the South Bay. It was the perfect setting for a birthday party. (BTW, I’m not disclosing which birthday this was for Jessie, but let’s just say that we were celebrating the golden era of his life.)

When eating dinner at Sino, or any of the fine restaurants in tony Santana Row, be prepared to deal with suburban traffic on the weekends. See, this is what happens when a city lacks a night life—half the region arrives at Santana Row for drinks and dinner. After my friend and I left her car with the valet at Hotel Valencia a few doors away ($5 for valet parking), we strolled to Sino for our surprise dinner.

Sino would fit easily among any of the new fancy restaurants changing the landscape of Shanghai, making it one of the hot destination cities of Asia. But we’re talking San Jose here. So we have to let Sino’s dark wood with bamboo highlights and lush velvet curtains and screens transport us instead.

We sat at a long dinner table in the back of the dining room, just past the pulsating club music from the lounge area. Dinner began with a dim sum sampler, which included such items as char siu bao (roasted pork buns), har gow (steamed shrimp dumpling), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumpling), and vegetarian spring rolls. (FYI, Sino serves dim sum during the day, but I can’t imagine it being loud and raucous like your typical dim sum house.)

The dim sum that I tried was tasty, although I felt the ingredients in the seafood spinach dumpling in particular were coarsely chopped. They were so chunky they literally fell out of my mouth as I tried to bite into the dumpling. The size of some of the dumplings was also huge, which defeated the idea of it being a sampler.

Next came Yeo’s Asian Chicken Salad. It was your typical Chinese chicken salad, except Yeo dressed it up by adding slices of pears and using a hoisin-base for his vinaigrette. The chicken was nicely tender and not overcooked but the greens were already wilting from either over-dressing or sitting a tad too long before coming to the party.

Then came a variety of dishes served family style. Sino’s menu is an attempt to offer traditional Chinese dishes with a twist. For Jessie’s birthday, we feasted on Spicy Garlic Eggplant, Szechwan Dry Green Beans, Ginger Chicken and Black Bean with Asparagus, Wok-Tossed Filet Mignon, Fried Tofu with Green Beans, and Vegetarian Ma Po Tofu. Jasmine rice served on the side.

The winners were the chicken and filet mignon. Both meat were perfectly cooked and offered a nice yin-yang balance in taste. The green beans were a bit too spicy and the ma po tofu was tasty but visually unappealing with its cubed tofu and vegetable chunks. I generally like my ma po tofu to be finely diced so that you have the urge to just slather it over a bowl of rice. This vegetarian ma po tofu looked like something a cook thought up at the last minute because he forgot some guests don’t eat meat.

Disclaimer: I don’t like egg plant so I didn’t try that course.

While all the meat were prepared nicely, Sino’s dishes suffer from one of the common problems of Chinese dishes made for an American audience—a slight tinge of sugar in every bite. Sometimes to create a nice glaze on dishes such as the chicken, sugar is added. But at times, it seemed like the Sino chefs went a bit too heavy on the sugar. The dishes, while satisfying, also lacked the fine preparations of five-star Hong Kong-style restaurants, as demonstrated by the sometimes chunky and coarsely chopped ingredients.

Side note: No discussion on Sino’s dessert menu because, of course, we had birthday cake for dessert.

Sino’s real star is the sexy environment that echoes a Hollywood glamour, which turned out to be the perfect setting for this birthday dinner. Of course, the company (and several bottles of wine) also helped to make this a fabulous celebration. Happy birthday Jessie!

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Sino Restaurant and Lounge in San Jose

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