Nameplate: The best Chinese is made in Detroit

Walking into Wah-Hoo Chinese Cocktails Sushi, between Larned and Congress at 536 Shelby Street downtown, reminds me greatly of stepping into a restaurant in L.A. Perhaps later in the year, as the weather cools and the sky darkens earlier in the day, Wah-Hoo will take on a decidedly more Detroit persona. But, now, in the heat of a sun-coated Detroit summer, its so dissimilar in style and atmosphere from anything else downtown that it somehow seems like its been transplanted from the West Coast.

Conceived and built by Nico Gatzaros, from Detroits well-known entrepreneurial family, Wah-Hoo is unique among central downtowns restaurants. Stepping through the tall polished Shelby Street entrance, one is met with soaring ceilings and red-flocked wall coverings that combine nicely with oriental imagery all around. A large Happy Buddha statue greets the everyday good-looking urban professional crowd from high atop the dark tabled dining room and its well-appointed full service bar.

Wah-Hoos kitchen and food prep area at the back of the restaurant is fronted nicely by a glass, brass and marble sushi bar. Chef Fengs crew of sushi masters at Wah-Hoo is the authentic deal, and a few of their most sea-recent creations look as if they could be brought back to life with a dip in a saltwater tank.

The dcor and layout of Wah-Hoos dining room, liquor and sushi bars is impressive. The wait-staff seems influenced by the Happy Buddha and what was most pleasant of all to find out about the kitchen and the staff are efficient. One of the glaring negatives of some downtown restaurants has been lackadaisical service. Some eateries, while having decent food, have even closed their doors having fallen victim to dissatisfied customers who saw their lunch hour evaporate or what should have been an exciting dinner stagnate before they were fed. But, not at Wah-Hoo. When you place your order, you can expect to linger awhile in the afterglow of a fine meal without the dread of forfeiting precious time waiting for your food.

My family has been in the business of business since before I was born. My dad (Ted Gatzaros) used to bring me to work with him downtown, and I grew up learning how to run things and run them well, said Nico, when asked him how long hed been around restaurants.

So hows the food? Lots of places look great, and have fancy menus. Some even have a top-flight wait-staff and a cheery mixologist behind their fine-featured bars. As planned and executed by Nico Gatzaros, though, Wah-Hoo plates up terrific food along with all the rest of the aforementioned superlatives. The dishes that I sampled are worth a return trip.

One of the recent menu additions is Walnut Shrimp, a plate piled high with extra large shrimp, candied walnuts, vegetables, and a coconut cream sauce, surrounded by al dente broccoli florets. Delicious comes close to describing it, but one needs to put an adjective in front of that maybe something like, very. Or, incredibly or even, pretty darned

The Hunan Beef also skyrocketed my taste buds into Happy Buddha territory. Although theres a dispute amongst scholars as to whether or not Buddha was a vegetarian, if he ever did eat beef, this is a dish that might have put him one step further into Nirvana. It was that good. Nico recommended it, and now I know why. Toothsome slices of beef tenderloin and Chinese vegetables adrift in a Hunan sauce. Add either steamed white or fried rice, and watch everything on your plate magically disappear.

Other dishes on my table were the Sesame Chicken, done in a sweetish glaze and covered with toasted sesame seeds, served with broccoli. Quite good. And, an ocean trawler amount of Shanghai Calamari, lightly fried crispy rings with a flavorful coating, served on baby greens with an orange chili dipping sauce. A really unique appetizer.

Wah-Hoo featuring Chinese, Cocktails and Sushi is a welcome addition to downtown Detroits destination dining rooms. And, just so you know, their Happy Hour may run for the longest amount of time downtown, from 2-6 p.m. No wonder Buddhas smiling.

By Paul Arlon

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