Elena Wu has come a long way since the late 1970s, when she started teaching cooking classes in her small Chinese grocery in Cherry Hill, but she still believes in the lessons she taught her aspiring cooks: Use fresh, top-quality ingredients, and keep the dishes simple. Her philosophy has served her well over the last twenty years, from the opening of her first restaurant in Marlton to her sustained success with her upscale dining room, Chez Elena Wu in Voorhees.
After selling the eponymous Marlton restaurant and moving to Voorhees in 1998, Wu cemented her reputation for fine Chinese cuisine, and with more grace and sophistication than one might expect from a strip-mall venue. About three years ago, she and her husband, known as K.K., repurchased the Marlton place and tried running both locations. “It was too much work,” Wu says. “For a restaurant to succeed, you have to be there, and it was hard to be at both places.” They sold the Marlton restaurant more than a year ago. So it’s nice to have the couple back in Voorhees, with Wu presiding over the dining room on a recent Saturday night, greeting her regular guests warmly, making sure reservations are honored promptly, and checking that everything is up to expectations; K.K., ever the charming host, opens and pours the wine and chats about our bottle.
Despite its location in a movie theater strip, the 130-seat restaurant is simply elegant, with latte-colored faux-marble walls, gilded mirrors, crisp ivory table linens, and pretty upholstery. But it’s the food that takes center stage—beautifully presented traditional favorites as well as original dishes, in a mostly Chinese menu with dabbles into Japanese and French fusion.
We start with a lovely lobster salad special—a combo of fresh lobster meat, mayonnaise, mango, and a sprinkle of tobiko (orange flying-fish roe); served with a spicy sauce with just enough kick, it should be added to the permanent menu. The mini crab cakes are also a hit; made with lump crabmeat, tiny cubes of bread, minced peppers, and a little cilantro, they’re flash-fried, then baked, resulting in a light, crisp finish. The lettuce wraps are much like those made famous by the P. F. Chang’s China Bistro chain, although Wu insists that hers—a stir-fry of chopped chestnuts, chicken, scallion, spices, and soy and hoisin sauces served in a lettuce bowl—were South Jersey’s first; unfortunately, ours are bland and forgettable. A longtime favorite at the restaurant is the eggplant topped with shrimp, made with pan-seared Chinese eggplant—sweeter and with fewer seeds than the domestic version—finished with a dollop of fried chopped shrimp, resulting in a nice contrast in textures.
The entrées include many standouts: tender rack of lamb cooked to perfection with a touch of rosemary, thyme, and soy sauce; Chilean sea bass pan-seared until light brown and just crisp on top, then baked in a white-wine stock; ahi tuna crusted with sesame seeds and a dash of five-spice powder and served with a wasabi mayonnaise sauce. But the honey-walnut shrimp, one example of Wu’s creative cooking, is my absolute favorite; the blanched shrimp are lightly coated in egg white and corn starch, quickly fried until crisp, then tossed with sliced apples and honey-baked walnuts in a light and creamy mayonnaise sauce with a hint of orange. Another interesting dish is Mongolian pork, made with thin strips of meat stir-fried with crunchy shards of jicama, ginger, and scallions and a sprinkle of wine and soy sauce.
The desserts, most of which are brought in, are a mixed bag. The pear tart is a bit dry and lacks flavor. The crème brûlée, made in-house, is too eggy for my taste. The white-chocolate-and-raspberry cake, apparently a favorite, is sold out on both my visits. The best bet is the beautiful apple tart—thin apple slices fanned over puff pastry with a scoop of ice cream—which provides a sublime if totally un-Chinese finish to a marvelous meal.
Reviewed in: June 2006