Review: Private Kitchen in University City
Last-minute diners take note: There is no room for spontaneity at Private Kitchen. Walk into the small, tidy Chinese restaurant on Olive Boulevard in University City without a reservation, and Emily Chen will politely explain that they are a must because she and her husband, chef Lawrence Chen, shop for ingredients each day based on advance orders.
Watching diners dig into Peking duck or nibble the tops off soup dumplings as you exit may feel deflating, but they earned it. Not only did they make reservations, but they also had to view photos of the menu on Facebook, choose what they wanted to eat and e-mail, call in or text their orders using the WeChat app., which is popular in China. Only then do the Chens go shopping.
If all this sounds like the basis for a new reality show (call it Extreme Reservations), at least diners are ensured a beautiful, bespoke meal. Private Kitchen’s business model isn’t an elitist gimmick; it allows the Chens to control inventory, cost and customer flow. Despite the name, there is nothing pretentious about Private Kitchen. Even with the crisp, white tablecloths and fabric-covered chairs, I felt as comfortable and welcomed as if I were in the Chen’s dining room. There was no expectation of formality.
Chen’s specialty is the subtle and sophisticated cuisine of Shanghai, which literally shines. A plate of House Special Beef – crispy collops of tender meat – glistened in a sticky sauce of black pepper, sugar and soy that was more savory than sweet; Baby Pork Rib consisted of bite-sized, bony nubs of braised spare rib shimmering with a caramelized sour plum sauce glaze and dusted with powdered sugar, suggesting a whimsical, snowy landscape. Both dishes exemplified two distinctive characteristics of Shanghainese cuisine: subtle, sweet-tangy flavors and exquisite presentation. Serving platters made from slabs of marble and slate were decorated with imitation bonsai trees and miniature pagodas.
Somehow, Chen made Three Ingredient Vegetables in Spicy Sauce as savory as any meat dish. Eggplant, potatoes and green pepper gleamed like gems in umami-rich sauce. The eggplant took on a smooth almost buttery quality while still maintaining its texture, as did the chestnuts served with braised chicken. Cooked to a creamy, chewy consistency, they added a mellow, nutty edge to the fragrant, ginger-rich Chinese five-spice brown sauce tying everything together.
The addictively delicious xiao long bao (“little dumplings in a basket”) are a must; perfectly symmetrical, bottom-heavy pouches are filled with a small pork meatball and swim in a light, rich stock. Resist the urge to instantly pop the dumplings in your mouth when they arrive in piping hot bamboo steamers. The preferred (and safe) method is to nibble off a bit of dough and either drain the broth onto a spoon or suck it out in one quick slurp before eating the rest.
Not all of these dishes, which are the Shanghainese version of Spanish tapas, hit such high notes. Hen Broth with Yam was essentially a bland (but comforting) soup of chicken – skin-on, bones-in and hacked into small pieces – boiled in broth with some chunks of white yam and a few marble-sized prunes. Salt & Pepper Shrimp, head-and-shell-on, arrived crackly and salty enough but lacked the advertised peppery kick.
The dramatic centerpieces that draw table-wide oohs and ahhs are the steamed whole fish, Peking duck and whole crab. The duck (two days’ advance notice required) had the defining dark red lacquered, crackly skin and enough fat to keep the meat lush and moist. However, I would have preferred wrapping the duck in a more traditional, thinner pancake than the doughy discs of Chinese bread provided; there would be more rolling and less folding, making it easier to incorporate the customary matchsticks of scallion and cucumber.
Chen buys live crab at an Asian supermarket down the street, fries it and serves it with a ginger scallion sauce. Thankfully, he breaks down the whole crustacean so diners can pull apart the exoskeleton with their hands, digging out shreds and chunks of crab meat and savor the comingled, slightly sweet juices of crab and sauce.
Private Kitchen recently obtained a liquor license, but I got the feeling it was more in response to customer request than a desire to build a drink program. You want beer? Choose from Corona, Sapporo or Heineken. Unless you request a specific bottle with your order, wine is limited to whatever happens to be in the fridge. For a $10 corkage fee, you can bring your own bottle.
Once you’ve made the effort to get into Private Kitchen, it’s best to channel your inner Buddha and go with the flow; finding a rhythm to a meal is difficult when dishes arrive at different times. But that’s because it’s just Chen cooking, which is what makes his little restaurant more charming than private.
AT A GLANCE
Private Kitchen, 8106 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.989.0283, Facebook: Private Kitchen
Don’t Miss Dishes
Xiao long bao, House Spicy Beef, Three Ingredient Vegetables in Spicy Sauce
A quiet, intimate space that looks formal without the expectation of formality
$10 to $36
Mon., Wed. and Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. to Sun. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.