- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- EXPERTS : Shanny Covey and her business partner Robin Covey make culinary magic again at a charming location.
In 1985, the Coveys established Robin’s in Cambria and it’s still among the most popular restaurants in SLO County. When Robin opened Novo, his international concept in SLO, it was embraced by the community for its food and ambiance. During the closure of Novo for retrofitting, Robin opened Chow Novo to keep his staff employed, and we all loved that tiny eatery. I was bummed out when he closed it but he wanted to concentrate on restoring Novo, and once again it was received locally like an old friend returning home. I’m happy to report that the defunct Chow Novo has been brought back to glorious life in its new guise as Chow, and after three meals there, I’m jazzed about this eatery dedicated to Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and South East Asian cuisines.
Ironically, my editor asked me if I was going to review Chow right after it opened and I said no. I explained I didn’t think it was fair to any restaurant to review them until they had been open at least a month. But I started hearing the talk about Chow right away and it was all good. Even the reports on Facebook, which can be brutally honest and occasionally unfair, were glowing. So I couldn’t stay away, and I’m glad I did go right away. On three different visits with friends I enjoyed fabulous foods and impressive service. I know what you’re thinking; of course I got good service. Honestly, during the first two visits, neither Robin, Shanny, or their son Jai Covey was there, and the new young servers had no idea they were waiting on New Times’ restaurant reviewer as I didn‘t make reservations.
My first visit was with my friend, Peggy Bojduj (aerobics instructor at Kennedy Fitness Center). She’s gluten-intolerant and requires foods prepared without wheat. We discovered Chow has a gluten-free menu, though unfortunately it wasn’t available yet. No problem, our server Laurie told us, she would talk to the chef about it and he was fine about accommodating our request. We ordered the shrimp with rice noodles and bean sprouts in a medium spicy coconut milk broth ($11). Normally the shrimp are dredged in flour and stir-fried, but they skipped the first step. The dish was fresh and tasty; my only complaint was that it wasn’t spicy enough. Next we shared the salt and pepper quail with gingered vinegar and cucumber ($16). Fried, it had a crispy skin and intriguing spicy flavor, which was enhanced by the tangy sauce. I had to admit I preferred the Novo version of quail, yet we enjoyed every bite. Another friend warned me she tried the pea shoots and didn’t like them because they have no pea pods, just tiny vines with leaves, fried garlic, and soy sauce ($6). Peggy and I loved the tender vines with the contrast of the crispy garlic.
My last lunch with Laura Ward (owner of Ward Wines) proved a surprise: we hummed over the stir-fried crab and bacon wontons ($12) with galangal ketchup; and the delicious salmon with chilled green tea soba noodles and a wonderful white miso-lemon dressing ($13). At first, I wasn’t interested in the Dong Po ($8 lunch special), Chinese roast belly with vegetable pickle, although two people told me it was excellent. Nah, it was fabulous, a prime example of the sense of the fifth taste the Japanese call umami. We shared it and exclaimed over its outstanding flavors of spice and sweetness. It was perfect with the German Dr. Loosen 2008 Riesling by the glass ($10).
Robin has Novo chef Justin Gabbert heading the kitchen at Chow. They’ve created a menu that’s true to the various Asian cultures, but they won’t be including Thai or Japanese dishes. Robin and Shanny took their chefs on a culinary excursion to San Francisco, where like myself, they were enamored with famed chef Charles Phan’s (of the outstanding Slanted Door) new restaurant, Heaven’s Dog. “Justin and I were on the same page at Heaven’s Dog; we said this is exactly what we want at Chow,” Robin recalled. “The food at Chow will be fresh and seasonal, and we plan to have one of the cooks shop the farmers markets thrice-weekly for locally grown ingredients.” As always, the Coveys expressed their appreciation for the people who work for them: “We have a really excellent wait staff and kitchen team. Shanny and I feel confident we’ll be busy and need to be at the top of our game.”
From what I’ve experienced of their food and service so far, it’s obvious Chow will be become as popular as Robin’s and Novo among San Luis Obispoans for its distinctive dining experience. I also know this: As they become more comfortable in their new surroundings, Chow will rise to the top of its game, and still keep getting better.
You can reach New Time’s Cuisine columnist at [email protected].