Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A beautiful opportunity: Hsu opens new Roanoke restaurant Formosa

Twenty years after taking his first restaurant job, Chih "Sam" Hsu has opened a restaurant of his own: Formosa.

Sushi chef Victor Peng prepares a dish for lunch customers at Formosa. Peng has been making sushi for 30 years.

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Sushi chef Victor Peng prepares a dish for lunch customers at Formosa. Peng has been making sushi for 30 years.

Waitress Tramy Ren helps customers at Formosa, a new Japanese restaurant in downtown Roanoke.

Waitress Tramy Ren helps customers at Formosa, a new Japanese restaurant in downtown Roanoke.

"You have to let people feel that your food is different," Formosa owner Chih "Sam" Hsu said.

Colored lights that change at timed intervals illuminate the bar at Formosa.

Photo illustration by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Colored lights that change at timed intervals illuminate the bar at Formosa.

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Food writer Lindsey Nair

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Experience and enthusiasm are two qualities that are awfully important in a new restaurateur, and if that were all it took to succeed, I would say Chih "Sam" Hsu is going to be running his downtown Roanoke establishment, Formosa, for a very long time.

Hsu is a tall Taiwanese man who wears a friendly grin almost as prominently as his dark-rimmed glasses. Just looking at him, I had no idea he was old enough to have been in the restaurant business for 20 years. But the youthful 35-year-old took his first restaurant job at age 15.

At that time, he was living in Taiwan, a country that, when discovered by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, was dubbed "Formosa," or "beautiful."

From age 15 to 25, Hsu worked in several different restaurants while earning an engineering degree from a technical college. He said he wanted to have his own money instead of spending his parents' dough. At 25, he moved to Roanoke and went to work at his uncle's Chinese restaurant, Nanjing on Orange Avenue.

Hsu, who changed his name to "Sam" so it would be easier to pronounce, started out as a server at Nanjing. He taught himself English by communicating with customers and watching American films, and eventually was capable of doing every job at the restaurant.

So here he is, 20 years after taking his first restaurant job, opening a restaurant of his own.

A hip vibe

Formosa opened on New Year's Eve next door to Alejandro's Mexican Grille, in the slender space that used to house Le Bistro and, before that, Italiano and Nico's.

Before you get excited about a Taiwanese/Chinese restaurant in downtown Roanoke, which I admit would be mighty cool, let me explain that the Taiwanese influence at Formosa ends with the name. Formosa is actually a Japanese restaurant specializing in sushi and teppanyaki. The latter is essentially another word for hibachi, referring to dishes prepared on a searing hot, flat griddle.

I would say the ambiance at this new downtown spot is another high card in Hsu's hand. He used his engineering smarts to do most of the remodeling work himself, injecting a modern vibe into the rustic interior without messing with the warmth of its beautiful exposed bricks.

"I like the exposed bricks, but you have to do some contrast," he said. "I don't have very much money. I think it's very important how you put materials together."

With help from a certain affordable four-letter Scandinavian home interiors store, Hsu brought in huge, white globe lights, leather chairs and silky panel curtains, which hang from floor to ceiling, decorating and dividing the space.

He painted interior walls a powdery gray and built a modern bar infused with colored lights, which smoothly transition from one hue to the next. Hsu has not one, but two remote controls studded with different colored buttons that allow him to create whatever lighting he desires.

As a music lover who enjoys the night life in big cities such as New York, Seattle and Los Angeles ("I love Las Vegas," he added), Hsu thought it was important to install a good sound system at Formosa. During the day, he plays relaxing lounge music; at night, he changes the dial to more upbeat dance music, such as electronica or techno.

It is Hsu's hope that Formosa will become a destination for cocktails and late-night appetizers in addition to Japanese cuisine.

A sushi master

Hsu is not the only one at Formosa with formidable experience. His sushi chef, Victor Peng, has been making sushi for 30 years and has even traveled to New York and Washington, D.C., as a consultant, teaching others the art of sushi. Peng, a friend of Hsu's family, has decided to stay on at Formosa for the foreseeable future, so Hsu is not overly concerned about the competition.

"I am positive that my sushi is the best," he said boldly, still wearing that grin. "I have the best sushi chef in town."

Hsu explained that fresh, never frozen fish and sterling knife skills distinguish excellent sushi from the rest, because they result in perfect color, texture and flavor.

In addition to the standard sashimi, nigiri and maki roll selections, Formosa offers entrees from the sushi bar and Peng's "special maki," which includes the Formosa maki, a combination of spicy tuna, eel, cream cheese, avocado and cucumber. Another special roll, the Ichiban maki, is filled with yellowtail, salmon, seared tuna, asparagus and "crunch," or crumbs of fried tempura batter.

On the teppanyaki side of the menu are 22 specials featuring just about every meat and seafood combination you can imagine, from a $10.95 chicken dish to a $38.95 Kobe beef steak. The standard Japanese appetizers, soups, salads, noodle and rice dishes, and tempura meals wrap up the offerings.

At lunchtime, patrons can choose from a pared-down selection of teppanyaki dishes, which range from $6.95 to $12.50, or opt for one of the sushi lunch combinations for $8.95 or $9.50.

Rounding out the restaurant trifecta with food and ambiance is, of course, service, and Hsu said he realizes how important that will be for Formosa to do well.

"I really care about every customer," he said. "You have to let people feel that your food is different. And the service has to be great."

His formula for great service: "You always need to smile and you always need to be patient and treat everyone the same," he said.

Blog highlights

This year, I resolved to have new entries posted on my Fridge Magnet blog before 8 a.m. each day, and to approve comments more often. I also resolved to share more blog content with print readers, so here are some highlights from the past week:

  • One of the best dishes I cooked over the holidays was a venison tenderloin, which I wrapped in bacon and roasted in the oven until it reached an internal temperature of about 135 degrees. I served it with a simple, spectacular, horseradish sauce -- which would be delicious with roast beef, as well. I will share that recipe (below).
  • The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has created a huge digital collection of menus from around the world, including some that I would consider ancient. Peruse this fascinating database at http://digital.library.unlv.edu/collections/menus
  • Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Bastian's BBQ, both in Salem, have closed.
  • It's raining gardening catalogs! We're already talking about what we plan to grow this year.
  • Where is the best barbecue in Southwest Virginia? Join the conversation at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.