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Chef's new restaurant delivers culinary choreography

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2016-01-08 08:08

Chef David Tao has done a lot of cooking in his 30-year life.

He studied cuisine in Germany and Austria - "Graz is like my second home," he says of the Austrian city famous for its perfume and its produce, adding (in Chinese) that he's more comfortable speaking German than English. Then the cooking school where he'd taken up further study in China sent him to Australia to train, where he wound up cooking for VIPs at the Australian Open and then at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where he'll never forget dishing up for luminaries like Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since then, the Beijing native has been back in the capital, first cooking in the Olympic Village at the 2008 Games before moving on to top-tier hotel restaurants in China.

After all those plates, he's shifting downgear - opening up his own private dining room in a converted corporate apartment and directing his picture-perfect plates to a maximum of about 40 people per night.

Wonder World Steakhouse is quite a small world, but there is wonder aplenty. For starters, it's charming, with decor that includes framed panels dotted with swarming button knots from qipao, the classic Chinese dresses.

We're immediately served warm and fragrant hibiscus-flower tea, and fresh-baked rolls arrive at table in a tiny pushcart centerpiece woven from straw. A series of amuse bouche is predictably a little precious, given his five-star past, but we love the succulent roasted scallop served in a flourish of dry ice, revealing a petite viola flower on top as the fog quickly dissipates.

Next his staff delivers two generous bowls of soup, creamy pumpkin that's lighter and more silken than any we've tasted before. That smoothness, Tao tells us later, can be credited to pumpkinseed oil (pressed in his own kitchen) and truffle oil.

Steaks - the ribeye and the tenderloin - seemed the obvious choice for mains, but Tao was most eloquent about his salmon offering. The plate arrives with a generous slab of the fish - very fresh under a light brown-sugar glaze. Dig right in, the chef urges, to get the full thermal complexity, and indeed there are hot, medium and cold layers, an effect that should be weird but is simply fascinating. Flaming with brandy to caramelize the glaze, he says, results in his moniker for the dish: Fire in Winter.

The Australian-beef steaks do not disappoint, though we are surprised that we prefer the perfectly executed tenderloin to the more flavorful rib-eye. Tonight the latter is well-marbled and tasty, but just chewy enough that it can't quite measure up to the tenderloin.

Tao's deft handling of the accompanying veggies, meanwhile, nearly upstages his excellent beef. The plate features a generous slice of a stewed vegetable that we think is daikon or a similar radish - until we take a bite. It's sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender, and we learn that it's yacon, a tuber that is native to South America but thrives wherever potatoes can be grown. The yacon on our plates - with both steaks and the salmon - comes from Xinjiang, and Tao is quick to tout the vegetable's health benefits that have made it a favorite in many cuisines globally. High in fiber and low in calories, it's said to improve digestion and it's valued as an artificial sweetener for diabetics.

The plates' color comes from more veggie bites: Crisp slices of okra dance alongside the steaks like little green stars, with a smear of mashed potato, a couple of Brussels sprouts, a bright baby carrot and a mysterious black knob that turns out to be roasted black garlic, a sweet surprise Tao says his father eats every day to boost his health. We're tempted to do the same, if we can find his supplier, just because it's yummy.

The dessert platter is another picture begging to be taken: A delicate cheesecake with a flourish of chocolate squiggles, fresh fruit, cookies and shaped marshmallows on a skewer. Such combinations of art and flavor are likely to make a table hard to get soon at Wonder World.

Chef's new restaurant delivers culinary choreography

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