I wish I could tell you more about the menu at Co, the Asian-inspired restaurant at Park Road Shopping Center.
I’ve taken bites from my friends’ bahn mis, pork belly steamed buns and spring rolls. I once ordered the sausage-studded Com Chien fried rice for a story on odd menu terms. It was all good enough.
One bite of Curry Laksa, though, and the rest of the menu was lost to me forever. That golden coconut-milk broth with an elusive, almost haunting taste of curry was it: I can’t ever order anything else. I make excuses to meet people there, under that eye-popping wooden sculpture, just so I can eat it again.
How much do I love that soup? It’s messy to eat, what with navigating slippery noodles into your mouth with chopsticks and occasionally dropping a whole shrimp with a golden-yellow splash. I have to resort to the indignity of tucking a napkin into my neckline to save my shirt. And I’m willing to do it, people. I don’t wear bibs for lobster, but I’m willing to wear a bib for this soup.
Sitting at my desk in November, contemplating the annual “best things I ate or cooked” roundup that food writers usually do this time of year, I got an email from the publicist for Co, which has locations in Charlotte, Charleston, Savannah and Myrtle Beach. (Three more are coming in the spring – Charlotte’s second, in Ballantyne, plus Atlanta and Raleigh.)
The offer: Co’s first anniversary in Charlotte was coming up in December. Would I be interested in writing a story about this crazy soup they have, called Curry Laksa? Now, I get pitches like that from restaurants all the time: Let the owner tell you his life story. Let the chef tell you how much you’re supposed to love this dish or that one.
You know how many I usually accept? Pretty close to zero. I’d rather make my own discoveries and share my own opinions, not dutifully record someone else’s script.
This was different, though. I was already in love with this soup. And here was my chance to find out how to make it.
So I went over to Co to watch Japanese-born executive chef Masanori Shiraiahi – he just goes by Chef Masa – make a bowl of it.
Curry Laksa, it turns out, is part of a whole group of dishes from the Peranakan culture, the descendants of Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. Versions of laksas turn up all over Southeast Asia, though, in Singapore, Indonesia and southern Thailand, too. There are curry laksas, asam laksas (with tamarind and pineapple, but no coconut milk) and sarawak laksas (red curry with coconut milk topped with sliced cooked egg). Laksas get so complicated, the Wikipedia definition includes a chart to keep them straight.
Co’s owner, Greg Bauer, lived in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, and got hooked on the dish there. In Charleston, where the restaurant started, he found an elderly Vietnamese man named Mr. Ha who taught him a lot of the dishes, and the restaurant adapted them.
“(Bauer) said he loved it so much, he wanted to bring it here,” says Chef Masa. “Why a dish a lot of people didn’t know? But now, it’s a signature dish.”
Chef Masa was a little puzzled about why I’d want a recipe. Would American cooks really go to the trouble? It takes a few steps: You have to make the laksa, a cooked paste, and the yellow curry soup base, then you have to get all the ingredients ready before you put it together.
No, not everyone will make it, I told him. But some will. Charlotte has good Asian supermarkets, like Super G Mart and Grand Asia, so the ingredients aren’t hard to find. For a dinner party, when you have friends coming over on a cold winter night, you could make most of it in advance and put it together at the last minute.
And if that’s not something you’d do, you know where you can find it. Just don’t forget to get extra napkins.
6 more favorite bites in 2016
A food writer doesn’t live by soup alone (although looking at this list, it’s true – I almost do). Through the year, I jot down my favorite restaurant dishes. I also added one of my favorite recipes, Ina Garten’s dinner party great, Make-Ahead Coquille St. Jacques.
1. Sticky Biscuits at The Asbury. Chef Matthew Krenz rolls out biscuit dough, then wraps it around minced Benton’s country ham, cinnamon-bun style. He bakes the biscuits with spiced butter on the bottom, then drizzles them with goat cheese icing. You get five for $6. You’ll want every one of them.
2. Smoky Tomato Bisque from the Papi Queso food truck. Brian Stockholm makes a base of San Marzano-style tomatoes with fennel, coriander, ancho and pasilla chiles and smoked paprika, rewarms it in cream steeped with tarragon and purees it. When it’s cold and you see that truck, stop and hand over $4 for a bowl.
3. Paris Brest at Aix En Provence. There are so many things to love at this place, including that warm chocolate souffle with a salty/buttery cream sauce poured into it. But Paris Brest is hard to find even in Paris: A ring of choux pastry, sliced and sandwiched with a coffee/hazelnut buttercream filling. It’s like a beignet married a coffee eclair. $11, but big enough to share. Theoretically.
4. Creamy white beans at Ru Ru. The tacos are good, with those crazy names and combinations, but I’d skip them all for a large serving of these beans in a citrus-tomato broth. In fact, I’d order a large serving ($3.50), get a spoon and just eat them as a soup. Yes, I like soup.
5. Customshop’s chicken liver pate with a dark, rich (but not sweet) chocolate bread and cherry mostardo. Sitting at the bar with a restaurant reviewer visiting from out of town, this was so sophisticated, it made my town’s food scene look really good. It’s currently on the menu for $12 with pickled strawberry jam instead. That sounds good, too.
6. Sweet potato pie at CC’s Sweet Potato Pies & Cafe. When we did a tasting of supermarket sweet-potato pies for Thanksgiving, it was a reminder that a sweet potato pie that’s as good as homemade is hard to find. CC’s isn’t as good as homemade – it’s better. For $10, you get a 9-inch pie with a great crust and a filling that doesn’t just taste like a darker pumpkin pie.
Co’s Curry Laksa Soup
From executive chef Masanori Shiraiahi at Co. You’ll have leftover laksa paste. Refrigerate it for a few days or freeze it until you need it again.
1 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons annatto seeds
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 ounces dried shrimp, soaked in hot water and minced
4 tablespoons minced peanuts
4 tablespoons peeled, minced galangal
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1/8 cup coconut milk
1 small can coconut milk
2 tablespoons Madras curry powder
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon sambal oelek (red chile paste)
8 ounces bun noodles, cooked (can be made ahead, covered with water and refrigerated)
About 2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
About 1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled
1 or 2 heads baby bok choy, leaves separated and steamed until crisp-tender
Garnishes: Cilantro, chopped green onions, sliced cucumber and bean sprouts
Make the laksa paste: Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and add the anatto seeds. Fry them until the seeds are black and oil is red. Remove the seeds with a slotted spoon and discard them.
Place the garlic, shallots, rehydrated dried shrimp, peanuts, galangal and lemongrass in a food processor and puree. Add to the red oil with the sugar, salt, paprika and coconut milk. Cook, stirring, until it comes together. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate.
Make the yellow curry: Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until you’re ready to make the soup.
Finishing: Combine about 1 cup chicken stock, 1 cup yellow curry, 1 tablespoon laksa paste (including the oil on top) and 1 tablespoon sambal in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add the shrimp and cook several minutes, just until cooked through.
Place the well-drained noodles in wide, shallow soup bowls. Top each serving with about 1/2 cup shredded chicken. Use a slotted spoon to remove the shrimp from the yellow curry and place 4 or 5 on each serving. Add several bok choy leaves to each bowl. Pour the yellow curry soup over and around the noodles. Serve with the garnishes on the side.
Yield: About 4 servings.
Make-Ahead Coquille St. Jacques
Yes, it’s indulgent. But your guests are worth indulging. When New York Times food editor Sam Sifton wrote about this Ina Garten recipe, I had to have it in my life. Make it the night before, refrigerate it and pop it in the oven 20 minutes before serving.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups seafood stock, clam juice or low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 large shallots, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
12 ounces wild mushrooms, such as cremini, stems discarded, sliced
1/4 cup brandy or Cognac
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (about 6 slices of bread, crusts removed, pulsed in a food processor)
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
5 ounces Gruyere, grated
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds bay scallops or quartered sea scallops, abductor muscles removed (see note)
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 4 minutes. Whisk in the stock until it is smooth and thick. Add the cream, curry powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring just to a boil, lower heat and simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
Add 3 tablespoons butter to a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. When it melts and foams, add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re tender, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until they’ve released their juices and are just starting to brown. Add the brandy or cognac and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add to the cream sauce and set aside.
Combine the bread crumbs, parsley and Gruyere in a large bowl, stir to combine, then stir in the olive oil.
Use the last tablespoon of butter to grease 6 (1 1/2 cup) ovenproof gratin dishes. Divide the scallops evenly between them and top with equal amounts of the mushroom cream sauce. Top each with a handful of the bread crumb mixture. Place the dishes on a sheet pan, cover with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a day.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the tray of dishes and remove the foil or wrap. Bake about 20 minutes, until the tops are lightly brown and bubbling. Serve hot.
Yield: 6 servings.