Let's Eat: 2001 Critic's Choice

6400 Horsepen Rd.
Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight
Dinner entrees about $10
Reservations not necessary

Richmond's Full Kee is the I-95 South version of Washington's well-known and well-respected Chinatown restaurant of the same name. Up there, Full Kee wears the mantle of a great late-night place, respected cheap eats and professional chef hangout. Down here, it's the same, and its location on Horsepen Road at the edge of one of the area's larger immigrant communities makes it seem like Chinatown South, especially on weekends.

The standard Cantonese fare — moo goo gai pan, kung pao chicken, moo shoo pork — is abundant, fresh and delicious here. For adventure dining check out the light-blue menu that goes unnoticed by many Western diners and draws uneasy laughter from those who read its offerings — pig's skin, intestines.

But the real magic at Full Kee is dim sum — carefully wrapped dumplings steamed or fried and stuffed with items ranging from the ordinary to the exotic, from beef, pork and shrimp, to taro and chicken feet. On weekends, the dim sum pushcart makes the rounds of the mostly Chinese-filled dining room.

Try an order of the shark fin dumpling and congee (rice porridge) with shredded pork for a little bit of Chinese home-style soul food. — N.P.

1309 E. Cary St.
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
Dinner entrées $10-$18
Dinner reservations accepted for parties of five or more

Simplicity, harmony, restraint: These Zen ideals along with the paramount virtue of freshness are the guiding stars of Hana Zushi.

Under the careful and skilled hand of master sushi chef Sato, who trained in Japan, the octopus is firm and not chewy with a touch of brine; the sea eel sweet and sliced paper thin; the tuna, generous, uniform and a clear and lively red. Sit at the sushi bar and you can watch the master at work — he's the one in blue. The two window-side tatami tables can also be fun — just be sure to remove your shoes.

Though most people go straight for the maki sushi, narrow strips of raw or marinated fish rolled in vinegar rice and nori, you can't hide a bad cut or poor quality in the chirashi presentation — several slices of various types of fish scattered atop a bed of sushi rice with daikon, wasabi and pickled ginger served in a decorative enamel bowl.

For folks still working on the transition to raw fish, there are plenty of other items on the menu from udon and donburi to tempura and teriyaki. — N.P.

2923 W. Cary St.
Monday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m.
Dinner entrees
Reservations accepted

Blend classic French cooking with traditional Vietnamese fare, marinate them in decades of colonial occupation, throw in the magic of the fry pan and wine sauce, and you arrive at a cuisine that at once encourages and restrains, that is earthbound and reaches heavenward. This is the cuisine at the heart of Indochine, where the emphasis is on fresh ingredients prepared with a broad palette of earthy flavors and finished with an elegant sauce.

Chilean sea bass is pan-seared, topped with lump crabmeat, shallot and garlic, and served with a curry-cognac sauce. Chicken is sautéed with coconut milk, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, shallots, coriander and curry. Calamari and shrimp are seared with garlic butter in a Chardonnay, basil sauce.

The jumbo shrimp royale appetizer competes with the crispy wonton Indochine as the fussiest and possibly best appetizer in town. Vietnamese standards such as spring rolls, seafood over egg noodles, and spicy chicken and lemon grass round out the menu.

Like the food, the finer details of an evening at Indochine add elegance and intimacy in a simple manner, from the cloth-covered menu books that match the waiter's vests to the Edith Piaf chansons that transport you to a time and place long gone. —N.P.

6004 West Broad St.
Sunday-Thursfay 11 a.m. -10 p.m.;
Friday- Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Dinner entrees $5.50 -$14
Reservations not necessary

Vietnamese food seems to have won a following in the Richmond area, as well it should, for we are lucky to have several good restaurants that specialize in this delicious cuisine. Mekong Restaurant is a prime example. Unlike many Asian restaurants where bare-bones budgets are reflected in comfort and ambience if not always the food, Mekong is comfortable — the lighting is good, the ambience is inviting. And with success, the owners have added an additional room in the rear, adjacent to the bar and nonsmoking room, with a large screen and Vietnamese karoke.

Mekong is popular with young professionals and grad students, who often handle their chopsticks as easily as a fork, as well as with a diverse sampling of the rest of us. And you'll find a fair number of Vietnamese, too.

The menu at Mekong with almost 150 items can be daunting. As with all cuisines, the Vietnamese have absorbed from those with whom they share borders, as well as those who penetrated their borders. It makes for an interesting mix of flavors from subtle to spicy. Some seem distinctly Thai or Chinese; others seem to suggest a touch of French influence. Much Vietnamese food is wonderfully light and nutritionally correct. And those wonderful noodle soups can be as comforting and maybe even tastier than mom's. — D.M.

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