China Village notes
- Ruth Lafler
Melanie called me last night, said she was on her way to China Village for dinner and did I want to join her.
Talk about a no-brainer!
There were four of us and we ordered six dishes. A couple we've had before: Cucumber with Garlic Sauce and Village Special Lamb -- both dishes I could eat forever. The cumin-spiced lamb is seasoned unlike any Chinese dish I've ever had, and the aroma of slightly charred lamb and spices that arose from the dish as it was set down was mouthwatering. We also ordered the eggplant with spicy garlic sauce other posters had recommended -- Melanie's sister and I seemed particularly fond of this dish but I managed to snag the leftovers.
We had a couple of off-menu items: a turnover the chef and owner have been using Melanie as a guinea pig for: a little like pan-fried sesame-encrusted mini-pita rounds with a spicy pork filling. These oozed red chile oil: hot but good. Another unique dish was a special of roasted whole prawns that surprisingly came in a syrupy (unthickened) sweet sauce with hints of ginger. The prawns' crunchy shell moistened with the sweet sauce was declared to be the highlight of this dish.
But the most important discovery was an excellent soup lurking on the "American" menu: Village Special Seafood Soup Noodles. It was ordered medium hot, but it was fairly mild to my taste. Still, it was exceptionally flavorful with a deep broth flavored by napa cabbage and chunks of ginger and with clams, prawns, scallops and flower-cut squid jumbled over chewy hand-cut noodles. Delicious!
Thanks for still more ideas about items to order at China Village. Like you, I've continued to order the lamb (and also like the eggplant)--but I'd also like to move on to new dishes. Do you know whether those turnovers will be available? Also, I had posted about being disappointed by a return visit to China Village after the Chowhound dinner in January--I'm pleased to report that further visits showed I'd hit the place on a bad day, and I am once again a China Village fan.
Ok, here are a few more suggestions about what to order and not. Ive now been to China Village ten times in about six months, more than Ive frequented any other single restaurant in the last year. Im loving exploring the menu, and Mr. Yao, the owner, has something new to recommend each time. Ive started trying some of the Beijing/Shandong repertoire, in addition to Sichuan. As youll recall, the chef is from Beijing originally.
The off-menu turnover is an adaptation of the Puff Bread with Five Spice Beef. Instead of using just beef, its filled with Spicy Combination (as listed on the cold plate menu). This is fu qi fei pian (husband and wife lung slices) made here with beef shank meat and tripe without lung. China Village makes a killer version, aromatic and complex and so hot! The bread helps to tone down the roasted red chili heat of this filling. I love the contrast of the cold chewy spicy meats against the warm crusty sesame bread. You can just request this dish the kitchen has all the components for making it.
The roasted prawns dish (six to an order, $15.95, shown below) that Ruth described was listed on the specials white board near the entrance. I enjoyed this dish, but maybe not as much as Ruth and my sister did, and Im not sure Id order it again. Stephanie thought the sauce was based on maltose.
Id reported before not being happy with the Lamb Dumpling with Green Onion (six for $4.50) previously. On a return visit, Mr. Yao presented a re-do. He said this was the medium blend for me based on what I didnt like about the first version. This had more onion and more broth to lend a softer texture to the lamb filling and more savoriness. This has a strong taste from older lambs and may be too gamey for some. It is a very authentic version.
A new dish, Cumin Lamb, is shown in a picture insert on the front of the For Chinese menu. Its a reproduction of a common Beijing street food. The mature lamb was cut irregulary into some thin slices and small cubes that are strung on small toothpicks. The marinade was flavored with cumin and other exotic spices and a slight sour note. The lamb skewers have nice grilled flavor and an interesting grainy, crunchy exterior and varied texture from the different size pieces. I liked this dish quite a bit as an appetizer.
The Spicy Cold Noodle with San Si (shreds of chicken, beef and pork, $5.95), held overnight in the fridge made a good cold lunch the next day. Fresh egg noodles were firm and coated with a well-balanced mildly spicy dressing made with Chinese sesame paste (not peanut butter, yeah!). The slivers of meat and cucumber were arranged on top, and I mixed them in when ready to eat. The chicken breast slices were on the dry side, but I liked the slippery pieces of fatty pork.
The hand-cut (not pulled) noodles are chewy with a near-rubbery toothsomeness that reminds my sister of spaetzle. We first tried them in a Sichuan peppercorn-scented broth for long-life noodles on my birthday (not on the menu). Theyre great in Soy Bean Sauce Noodle (gan zha jiang mian, $4.95). Even more delicious is the Village Special Seafood Soup Noodles (chao ma mian), described by Ruth, the best version Ive ever tasted with deep intense broth and carefully cooked mixed seafood. The Beef Stew Noodle Soup ($4.95) is also made with the hand-cut noodles. Ordered spicy, the broth was a little disappointing and monotonal with only one chili heat note.
The Peking Duck, which can be ordered in advance or often offered as a special, is unique locally for being served with freshly made pancakes and the traditional bean sauce (tianmian jiang). Actually, you have to ask for the tianmian jiang, as hoisin sauce is the default (because this is whats typically served in the Bay Area), but at least its available. The mahogany skin was not the crackly honey-glazed wonder, rather its lightly crisp and a little chewy. Sliced off the bone with the skin and meat together, and not served separately, the pieces also had a sizeable layer of unrendered fat. The meat was especially well-seasoned, flavorful and succulent. Really remarkable flavor, as the meat is often plainer and dryer in Peking duck. The server wraps these with the pancakes and cucumber slivers and scallions for you. While my sister objected to the fattiness, I would order this again. But Id wrap them myself and remove the extraneous fat from each slice.
One dish that I wouldnt order again is the Combination Hot Pot ($8.95). As a single order, the bubbling spicy broth was brought to the table over sterno with the seafood and beef already immersed and cooking. Consequently everything was overdone. Also, the spicy broth had a one-dimensional chili flavor without much personality.
On service, the owner speaks excellent English and has been very helpful in recommending dishes and describing them. Weve gotten to the point where he also steers me away from dishes I ask about toward something he thinks Ill like better. He is good at ensuring balance in selections too. He has, however, never stopped me or said that Ive ordered too much, which I have a tendency to do here. Hes stood behind his recommendations, replacing the lamb dumplings when they were not as described.
The woman server and the husky man (usually wearing a white shirt and designer tie) arent as comfortable in English, but they are vigilant in attending to changing plates, filling water glasses, and portioning out individual servings. The younger, tall and slender waiter is not as competent. He doesnt smile and seems to not care about or understand the service concept. Hell bring the soup tureen to the table without providing soup bowls or a ladle and then disappear. Likewise when he brings the rice. Unlike the others, he doesnt ladle out the soup for the table for each diner. But after the poor job he did in wrapping our Peking duck, I suspect were better off on our own. Hes also clumsy and sloshes the food when he sets the platters down. If he waits on you, youll need to stay on top of the situation and ask well in advance for service or suffer unnecessary delays.
The times Ive been there on Monday or Tuesday, the food hasnt been quite as good. This makes me suspect that these are the head chefs days off, so Im avoiding them going forward.
The menu is going to be revamped soon, now that the restaurant has been open for a year and found its rhythm. I hope that others will continue to report in when they try new things here.