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Review: Chao Chao

Sushi and apple tart - who knew?

Sushi. Nigiri. Sashimi. These are intimidating words to a virtual sushi virgin. I have tried California rolls and shrimp tempura but always steered clear of raw fish. Why are so many of my friends and even my brother, who ate only Cap'n Crunch and Yoplait growing up, enamored with sushi? With some trepidation, I decided to find out. I made a reservation at Sandy Hook's Chao Chao, where I discovered more that just sushi.

Having eaten at Chao Chao on a less daunting night, I trusted the quality and freshness of the food here. We were seated in the second-floor dining room, with antique pine floors and large windows that contrasted nicely with the Asian décor. The sheer curtains and fabric that hung from the ceiling softened the space, and carved wooden panels offered some privacy. On a previous visit, we ordered and loved the scallops and the sea bass. Trying something different, we chose Crispy Orange Beef ($18) and Roasted Chicken with Artichoke Hearts and Sausage Stuffing ($19), then waited for the server to navigate the sushi and sashimi menu.

For those who may be uninitiated, let me share the translation given by our helpful waiter, James. "Sushi" is the umbrella term for this Japanese cuisine and indicates that rice is involved. "Sashimi" is the fish part. "Nigiri" is the fish served on top of rice in a hand-pressed oblong shape. "Maki" is the roll that is sliced with a variety of fillings. (That is my limited understanding; please correct me if I'm wrong.)

We chose the King Crab Avocado Maki ($8), Smoked Salmon Nigiri ($3) and Yellowtail Nigiri ($3.50). The plate was beautifully presented, with our colorful choices punctuated with a small tower of wasabi. We were shown how to mix the wasabi and soy sauce and advised to try the pickled ginger. And the verdict was good. I actually enjoyed the second bite of my yellowtail (the first was shrouded in fear). Contrary to my preconceptions, I wasn't as thrilled with the crab roll—it may have been the chewiness of the seaweed. But I did enjoy the yellowtail and would eat it again. The wasabi and ginger complemented the delicate flavor of the fish perfectly.

My beef dish was freshly cooked and topped with crispy spinach leaves. The tangy sauce had just a bit of spiciness and could have used some more. My husband enjoyed his chicken, which was served with a beautiful whole artichoke heart, rather than the canned chopped up variety usually found in restaurants. But the accompanying stuffing was heavy and wet, adding little flavor to the chicken. Our side of baby spinach ($5) had generous slivers of garlic and was lightly sautéed.

For dessert, I ordered the Apple Tart ($9). Our expectations of such a mundane dessert were low, but thankfully we were wrong. Even my husband, who consistently skips the sweets, could not resist using the extra fork. The meal was good, but this dessert was the star. The crispy buttery puff pastry held paper-thin apple slices that were dusted with cinnamon, drizzled with a citrus caramel sauce and crowned with a globe of the richest homemade cinnamon ice cream I have ever tasted.

Chao Chao is a sophisticated, romantic spot for adults, so I would not bring my children here. Dinner can be on the expensive side, with entrées ranging from $15 to $28. The bar has creative cocktails (the Pomegranate Mojito is delicious) and an extensive wine list. On Thursdays, the popular lounge hosts live music and dancing beginning at 8:30pm, but really heating up at 9:30pm (when we were leaving).

On our next visit, I would like to try the small plates, such as the Chorizo Puff ($11) or the Pumpkin & Beef Dumplings ($9). For the entrées, we will stick with the sushi and seafood dishes that Chao Chao does so well. And that Apple Tart—perfection.

Dining suggestions? Recipe recommendations? Tasty story ideas? Leave a comment or send me an email, and let the foodie conversation begin.

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