Xiao China Grille & Lounge, located in a strip mall complex in East Lansing, defines itself through fusion.
The décor of Xiao (pronounced “shee-ow”) is trendy and funky with a touch of zen. Large lantern-like light fixtures and cloth panels hang along the ceiling, an enormous Buddha statue sits serenely despite the shrill flashing of ESPN at the bar and steady thump of club music, and plenty of dark reds and dark wood color a dining room lit so dimly I had a difficult time making out the features of my dining companion. Good news, I suppose, for wary blind-daters, but I prefer not to squint to see my meal.
Fusion is difficult to do well. When it comes to décor or plate presentation, the eyes can be charmed and seduced by novel combinations. The tongue, though, is a harsh mistress.
We started with the chicken lettuce wraps ($7.49) which are a study in contrast. Full leaves of romaine fan out from a chicken and vegetable mixture punctuated with pineapple chunks and served in a deep fried shell. Perhaps it’s a quibble, but our lettuce was still soaking wet when served, and although I was confident it was rinsed well, I didn’t need a bath along with it.
The warm of the chicken contrasted nicely with the cool of the lettuce and the cold of the pineapple; it’s just too bad the pineapple came from a can, adding nothing but stale sweetness. The chicken mix, too, had little depth of flavor, beginning at sweet and ending at sweet.
Our entrées suffered from similar saccharine fates.
The bento boxes looked fun, and sushi is always a favorite, so we tried the sushi and sashimi box ($18.99). It came with shrimp and vegetable tempura and a teriyaki sauce that was nothing if not sweet. The tempura, which I like crispy, wasn’t, and it had little flavor outside of the oil it was fried in. On the upside, it did hold mushy vegetables together well.
The sushi didn’t fare much better. My companion wondered if the tuna had taken a shower before hopping into our bento box, washing away most of its flavor. It had no depth whatsoever. And while the sushi rice looked like the real deal, once it got to the mouth it took on a minute rice quality and fell apart into separate grains — I like mine chewier and a tad gooier, something that blends better with the meaty texture of the fish.
We went with the crispy sesame chicken for our second entrée. Like the tempura, its name belied the finished product. The only texture came from the breast meat nuggets, and they were neither crispy nor tasty. And the pretty green stalks of broccoli that came with the meal? Flavored, generously, with water.
The sesame sauce could have saved the dish, and when there was an actual tang, it wasn’t half bad. The problem, like most everything else we tried, was that the sauce played only a one-note tune. Like the chicken mix in the appetizer, it managed a semi-sweet identity with preciously little substance.
The sesame chicken was kind of like watching a cute little kitten doing something adorable on YouTube — fun at first sight, but it gets old fast. The only difference, in the end, is that I don’t pay $12.49 to watch that cat.
The dessert menu was filled with chocolate this and cheesecake that, which we could find just about anywhere, so we went with what looked like the most unique option: a mango mousse cake.
Mr. Mango, my companion suggested, must have taken a shower with Mr. Tuna, their flavors slowly swirling down the drain. The dish was pretty, though, with a drizzle of citrus sauce that did have loads of flavor. But scraping up those precious bits of zing didn’t do much for a cake that brimmed with sweetness. Even the crust, which my eyes told me was going to be firm and buttery, fell apart like the sweet, plain-flavored sponge cake that it was.
For me, fusion means amping up flavors, mixing what’s best in one dish with what’s interesting in another, finding fun where no one has found it before. It’s never tedious.
At Xiao, fusion seems to be an aesthetic concept for the eyes only. On our trip, the most distinctive flavors had been dutifully scrubbed out of the meals. Sweeteners filled the void.
While that doesn’t result in a memorable culinary experience, I guess if you’re trying to please as many people as possible in a culture addicted to sugar, it’s probably not a bad way to go.
Xiao China Grille & Lounge
3415 E. Saginaw St., Lansing
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday
Noon-9 p.m. Sunday
TO, OM, WiFi, $$$