Chef and co-owner Josh Marcus had in mind the comforting Chinese food he went out for on Sunday nights as a kid — the soups and dumplings — when he opened Chow Down Grill in Surfside. His tiny storefront serves fresh takes on Asian standards along with chalkboard specials like peppermint-smoked lamb and roasted whole fish.The moderate prices and unpretentious setting are a departure from Marcus’ fine-dining past (BLT Steak, China Grill). The long, narrow space is done in dark woods, with a 10-seat bar showcasing the open kitchen, eight tables up front and a few more outside. The menu focuses on seasonal ingredients and simple preparations. Our friendly, attentive waitress was quick to point out there’s no MSG or added sugar, and the fryer is used sparingly. The small starter list includes dumplings, salads and soups (Marcus’ takes on wonton and pho, inspired by his Vietnamese fiancee). Crab Rangoon with spinach and mascarpone sounded intriguing, but while it was crisply fried, the spinach overpowered the shellfish. The plump dumplings — four to an order — were clear winners, especially the tender chicken with slivers of basil and the shrimp with fennel and corn in a squid-ink shell. Six sauces (all but the sriracha and soy house-made) arrive in mini-squeeze bottles. The Chow Down chop salad gets its crunch from Napa cabbage, sliced onion, carrots and cucumbers, and grapes play nicely off the chile-lime vinaigrette. We liked the slivered, pickled radishes on top but not the bland shrimp. Chow fun — wide rice noodles in a sauce of ginger and hoisin with peppers and rainbow chard — were tasty and generous, especially for $8. Fried rice with butternut squash, egg and peppers caught our eye, but we had run out of room. A barbecued beef-rib special was a little fatty and nothing out of the ordinary. Entrees let the diner choose the protein and sauce. At our server’s suggestion, we tried tea-smoked duck with green curry sauce, served with roasted potatoes and chard. The sliced duck was cooked to a perfect pink and the skin was crisp, but the smoky meat overpowered the timid curry. Like the duck, the steak we ordered on another night with rich Mongolian barbecue sauce was cooked just as we’d requested, medium-rare and flavorful. Well-textured tofu in a spicy garlic-herb sauce was marred by the taste of burned garlic. Marcus’ take on banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich that isn’t easy to find in South Florida, can be had here with chicken, braised beef or tofu. The rich beef made the baguette a bit soggy, but the pickled carrot and cilantro garnishes were bright and fresh. There are a handful of wines and sakes and a dozen beers including Southern Tier Hop Sun, a wheat microbrew that paired nicely with the ribs. Skip the carrot cupcake with red bean sauce (it would benefit from sweetening) and end with a homey, seasonal pudding — on our visits pumpkin bread or cinnamon rice with chunks of tender apple. Six months after opening, Chow Down is still working out the kinks, but it’s a good neighborhood spot for a Sunday dinner.
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