Had Restaurateurs Ed Culleeney and Shawn Li cracked open a fortune cookie before opening their Asian eatery PL8, it might have read something like this: “Team up, cook delicious Chinese and Japanese food (and perhaps a Thai dish or two), and you will find great success.”
General manager Culleeney — who spent a quarter century with Lettuce Entertain You and 15 of those years at its iconic (now shuttered) Chinese restaurant, Ben Pao — is a longtime scholar of authentic Asian cuisine. And chef Li, a Chinese native who also owns TL’s Four Seasons in Bartlett, has years of experience behind a sizzling wok. Together, the two are setting off fireworks in northwest suburban Barrington.
“You won’t see a lot of Ben Pao [dishes] on the menu. I didn’t want it to be Ben Pao West,” Culleeney says. Instead, he and Li — along with sushi chef Chris Traynor — have put together a parade of their own creations.
PL8 has extensive lunch and dinner menus, a separate wheat-free and gluten-free list, and it also offers seasonal “chalkboard” specials that change monthly. “We wanted to offer as much as possible,” Culleeney says.
He isn’t joking. Unabashedly working in the word PL8 (pronounced plate), the lengthy dinner menu alone features a host of small PL8s, five soups, classic PL8s, signature PL8s, noodle and rice PL8s, vegetable PL8s and two entire pages of nigiri, sashimi and maki PL8s.
The six classics — although still thoughtfully prepared — are there to please the masses, Culleeney says.
“No matter what you do, people want sweet and sour chicken and Kung Pao. But we try and get you into our signature dishes.
“That’s where we can showcase things we are particularly fond of.”
And that’s precisely where Culleeney steered my photographer Kathy and me as he helped design our photo shoot for this entry. [Please note that contrary to my usual m.o. and because of logistical constraints, I did not dine at PL8 prior to my interview with Culleeney or our photo shoot. Instead, Kathy and I — compliments of PL8 — stuffed ourselves silly with all of the food in these gorgeous photographs.]
Culleeney started us out with Li’s signature Chong Ching noodle soup ($13), a dish the chef grew up on in his hometown of Chongqing. Li’s take featured delicately flavored but firm whitefish filets, pickled mustard greens and cellophane noodles in a soothing light (but not watery) broth. The heat from the soup’s languidly floating fresh red chiles built nicely and slowly to a spicy grand finale. A meal in itself, the tureen could easily serve four.
Next out was spicy chili fish ($14), a signature dish designed with heat fiends in mind. Here, whitefish filets are now prepared as stir-fry and served with a mélange of Asian veggies (snappy snow peas, winter bamboo, mushrooms), red chiles and smoked tofu in a gingery-garlicky bean sauce.
Also from the signature PL8 list was black-peppered garlic beef ($13), a rich, sweet beef tenderloin stir-fry ringed by fresh steamed broccoli.
Culleeney describes the generously portioned entrée — like many of PL8’s creations — as an “Old World dish using New World technique.” So, for example, butter in a “very contemporary” turn is added — along with sugar — to the tenderloin. This finishing touch draws out the dish’s fat and encourages its tasty caramelization.
From the wheat- and gluten-free menu, Culleeney culled Thai basil shrimp ($15), a dish so well-liked that it will soon be added to the main menu.
Kathy deemed the wild-caught shrimp “unbelievable,” and I’d have to concur. Bold ingredients — fish sauce, lemon juice, crispy fried basil — both stood up to and deliciously glazed the dish’s big-flavored Baja shellfish.
In between entrees, Kathy and I also sampled Traynor’s sushi. Rolled in panko and topped with ultra-fresh tuna poke salad, his special Mele Kaliki Maki roll ($16) was filled with some of my favorites — crunchy tempura crab, shrimp and cucumber. We also had a chance to taste-test Traynor’s new red dragon roll ($16), which he created for the upcoming Lunar New Year. This firecracker of a roll features shrimp tempura, eel, spicy imitation crab and jalapenos topped with bigeye tuna, spicy garlic mayo, barbecue eel sauce and red fish roe.
Dessert is the only area where the menu is admittedly limited, since the eatery has no pastry chef. There are four sweet PL8s, only one of which — crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside chocolate-banana wontons ($5) — is house-made.
No worries, though. “You will find great happiness and delight with PL8’s chocolate-banana wontons — anonymous”
736 West Northwest Highway
Barrington, Illinois, 60010