November 30-December 6, 2005

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Sino Restaurant and Lounge

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Dim Sum Kind of Wonderful: Sino's dumpling offerings are a cut above.

Sino the Times

Sino's intriguing and even daring fusion proves it has more going for it than just good looks

By Stett Holbrook

I TRY TO KEEP an open mind when I hear about a new restaurant to avoid forming preconceptions. But it seldom works. As soon as I lay eyes on a place I start to pigeonhole it into well-worn categories like the dumpy but charmingly retro diner, the careful-the-plates-are-hot brand of overcheesed Mexican restaurant or the surly-but-authentic ethnic hole-in-the-wall eatery.

Sino Restaurant and Lounge, a 2-month-old "modern Chinese" restaurant in Santana Row, was no exception. As I walked into the restaurant past the flowing water wall at the entrance and toward the dusky light of the opulent bar, a perky young hostess wearing a tight sweater zipped suggestively low approached me and I thought I had the restaurant pegged even before I took a bite of food: overpriced, gentrified Chinese food dumbed down for diners reluctant to venture beyond the safety of egg rolls and mu shu pork. If Jessica Simpson could be reincarnated as a Chinese restaurant, I thought this would be it—crowd-pleasing good looks and expensive tastes but little in the way of substance.

While it's admittedly foolish to judge a book by its cover, I enjoy the surprise when my snotty preconceptions are proven wrong. That's what happened at Sino once I sat down to eat.

Sino is owned by Christopher Yeo, the restaurateur behind Straits, a trio of poplar Singaporean restaurants with locations in San Francisco, Palo Alto and down the street in Santana Row. To be sure, Sino is a real looker. It's one of the most visually striking restaurants in Silicon Valley. The 9,000-square-foot interior was designed by the swank Engstrom Design Group and features a stunning curved bar, a cush lounge with low, leather seating, old kung fu movies playing on silk panels hanging between dining rooms, and cool, Ally McBealish bathrooms (the opposing male/female washrooms are visible to both sexes) located at the end of a long black hallway painted red with splashy Chinese calligraphy.

While the menu avoids some of the ingredients you'd find at traditional Chinese restaurants like duck tongue, pig ears and geoduck clam, both Chinese food aficionados and less adventurous diners will find plenty to like at Sino.

The kung pao chicken lollipops ($10) are a must order. The lacquered skewers of chicken breast are like meat candy. The sweet, salty and spicy glaze and juicy meat make this an irresistible starter that builds anticipation of what's to come. And if you order the scallion pancakes ($6) you won't be disappointed. While they're crisper and oilier than more traditional versions I've had, these biscuit-size, chewy-crunchy cakes are an enticing starter, especially with the excellent shallot-peanut sauce.

The appealingly blistered Szechuan dry-fried green beans ($10) were gone from our table in seconds. They were good, but not $10 good. I mean, it's just a plate of beans. Alas, not all the starters were as good. The overpriced garlic-crisped fried calamari ($11) was rubbery, bland and forgettable.

Entrees are generally quite good, but the prices can feel out of step with what's on your plate. The char siu smoked sea bass ($28) was my favorite entree. The thick chunks of fish were tinted a beautiful pale red and full of wonderfully sweet, faint smoky flavor. The accompanying gai choy (think bok choy) was great, too, but nearly $30 seems like a lot to pay for two rather small pieces of fish.

Sizzling ginger beef fillet tips ($26) may have sizzled in the kitchen, but they didn't on the table. In spite of its silence, the beef was delicious nonetheless. Tender enough to eat with a spoon, the meat was suffused a salty-sweet xao xing wine and scallion sauce.

The big, head-on grilled spicy dragon prawns ($18) looked great on a plate but they were hard to peel, messy and packed all the punch of a lukewarm glass of water. The best part was the accompanying greens. General Yeo's roasted chicken ($15 half, $25 full) was crispy skinned and moist fleshed but otherwise pretty drab. The five spice ginger salt rubbed over the bird was too subtle to add much flavor.

At lunch, Sino serves dim sum as well as a few soups and noodle and rice dishes. The dim sum is quite good and portions are considerably larger than what you'd find at a more traditional dim sum restaurant like Mayflower in Milpitas or Dynasty in San Jose. Classic dim sum like har gow (shrimp and bamboo shoots in a rice flour wrapper; $4.25) and siu mai pork ($4.75), mushroom and shrimp in a wonton wrapper, are as delicate and expertly made as any I've had. I especially liked the baked pork bun and turnip cake (both $4.25). The pork bun is a complex sandwich of sorts, barbecued pork and onion served on a chewy sweetened roll. Turnip cakes are one of my favorite dim sum dishes and here the gelatinous squares of puréed turnips are pan-fried and filled with daikon radish and dried shrimp, and the Chinese sausage is pan-fried. They're rich and very good. If you need evidence that Sino isn't pandering to white bread tastes, check out the plate of fried chicken feet ($3.75). For something sweet, don't miss the egg custard bun ($3.75). More of a tart than a bun, the rich custard sits in a flaky, downright buttery crust.

If Sino has a flaw, it's the service. On one visit, our server told as to wait for servers to come by with selections of dim sum. But when no one came, we had to flag someone down to order. When the servers did come by, many just had one item, a process that would have made for a very slow-paced meal. At times, the floor staff seem to struggle to keep on top of their tables.

The bar is where Sino leaves tradition behind with its list of fancifully named cocktails made from exotic fruits and herbs. Some are good, but others make poor use of top-shelf liquors by masking them with other liquors and mixers. At $11 a pop, you'd expect the bartenders to know what they're pouring. When I asked about an ingredient in one drink, the bartender could only shrug and hazard a guess. But if you've got a taste for sweet concoctions like a chocolate and ginger vodka martini with wasabi sugar around the rim, you'll probably love Sino's cocktails. As for the rest of the restaurant, there's lots to like as well, even for smug know-it-alls.

Sino Restaurant and Lounge

Address: 377 Santana Row, San Jose.

Phone: 408.247.8880.

Hours: 11am-10pm Sun-Tue and 11am-midnight Wed-Sat.

Price Range: $14-$48.


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