Zoe's Now in Brookline!
An article in today's Brookline Tab has said that Shalom Beijing, a kosher Chineese restaurant in Brookline Village has done away with its kosher kitchen and since the owner is also the owner of Zoe's in Somerville, he is bringing in a new chef from China to redo the menu. It seems to be open.
Went to the new Zoe's on Wednesday night and had an excellent meal.
Started with cong1 you2 bing3 (scallion pancake). Not my absolute favourite kind --- that would be Wang's --- but very, very good indeed, and definitely reminiscent of the Somerville Zoe's, but a touch less oily which made them a little better. They are crunchy and flavourful.
The best dish we had was the zi1 ran2 yang2 rou4 (lamb with cumin). Small, delicately sliced lamb was paired with just the right amount of a spicy sauce and astoundingly fresh cilantro leaves. This is as good a rendition of this dish as I've had in Boston --- the other excellent versions being at the Somerville Zoe's, Qingdao Garden, and (the sadly departed) New Taste of Asia.
Our waitress asked if we liked spicy foods and we enthusiastically said yes, and so she recommended the shui3 zhu3 yu2 pian4 (fish fillets with hot chilli sauce). This was the only disappointing dish of the evening. The fish itself was okay, but was covered in a sauce that was both a little too thick and a little too sweet, and it wasn't spicy at all. When she asked how we liked it I explained that it wasn't very spicy and she said that if we ordered it next time we should request extra-spicy. Hm, I thought that's why we ordered it this time? :)
The ma2 po2 dou4 fu3 (mapo tofu) also wasn't particularly spicy, but it was excellent, with tofu of just the right consistency and a pleasantly aromatic sauce. Again, it may be necessary to make clear that you want the mapo tofu spicy! It is also nice that it can be prepared with pork, beef, or vegetarian.
Another big hit was the qing1 chao3 cai4 hua1 (fresh cooked cauliflower) which was simple in preparation but outstanding in taste --- expertly cut fresh cauliflower sauteed in a very light sauce. The tian2 suan1 bai2 cai4 (stir fried cabbage) was okay, but had a sauce that was too heavy for my taste, while my companion loved it.
Our waitress also urged us to try the bo1 luo2 fan4 (pineapple fried rice). In theory, this is not a gimmicky dish invented for Americans, but a real Yunnan specialty. Unfortunately, what we received was rice inside a pineapple, but it was egg-fried rice with the standard chopped onions, peas and carrots, as well as an occasional piece of pineapple. There's nothing wrong with this, but it's not exactly what you'd find in Yunnan. I can't help it; eating out of a pineapple is still fun.
We spoke for quite some time to the owner's wife, who explained that there were three chefs in the kitchen: one from Hunan, one from Sichuan, and one from Yunnan. She explained that the Sichuan chef has been trained by Hui Zeng, the Chef at Chilli Garden in Medford. They currently have the same menu as the Somerville Zoe's, but she also explained that they are printing another page of Yunnan specialities that will be inserted into the menu soon. This is what is meant by serving the food of China's ethnic minorities --- while Cumin lamb is certainly a Xinjiang dish, they are referring to Yunnan dishes which will soon appear on the new menu. I hope this includes dishes like qi4 guo1 ji1 (steamed chicken), guo4 qiao2 mi3 xian4 ("crossing the bridge" noodles), yang2 du3 jun4 (a Yunnan mushroom), and xuan1 wei1 huo3 tui3 (Yunnan ham), but we'll see. There is a chef really from Yunnan --- he speaks Yunnanhua! Availability of ingredients might be more of an issue. But this is really exciting --- I don't know of anywhere else in the area that serves Yunnan food! I doubt we'll see things like mi4 feng1 you4 chong2 (bee pupae), but I did suggest to her that serving pu'er tea would be a really great touch.
The restaurant is decorated with various pieces of art from Yunnan, and the waitress was wearing an apron of Yunnan cloth. She was from Beijing, however, as are the owners. Our waitress' English was limited, but we ordered in Chinese. The owner's wife spoke fluent English and I suspect they'll try to have someone there who speaks very good English at all times. If not, the menu is in both English and Chinese so just point. :) The room is cute and not very kitchy; the location is pretty good with a reasonable amount of parking. It's not far from the Longwood Medical Area, and would make a nice lunch spot if you are coming from there. Also, the plates in the restaurant are very interesting --- not utilitarian, they are modern "cool" plates that you could find in an expensive restaurant, and add a little flair.
Overall, the food is excellent and I look forward to returning.
We tried the new Zoe's out tonight and were pleased. We ordered Dan Dan noodles, twice cooked pork (which has two different prices in two different places on the menu), and eggplant in garlic sauce. The noodles were good but not great. They were not the thick noodles I've had in other places but more like thin wheat noodles. The sauce was moderately spicy but overall the dish was a bit boring.
The twice cooked pork was excellent. Unlike in other places, here it was not fatty but instead almost crisp but still tender. It came with green peppers and green onions. We ordered our hot dishes somewhere between medium and hot, and they tended to be more on the medium side. Next time I'll ask for tehm to be more spicy.
The eggplant with garlic was also delicious, having "wok heat" when it was first served. It also contained lots of other vegetables in addition to the eggplant: green and red peppers, water chestnuts and scallions. The eggplant was cooked to that good place between crisp and tender.
The rice was mediocre but edible, and the tea was excellent.
I also liked the decor. The room was light and airy because of a skylight-like ceiling. There were very few customers, however, and I hope that this place will attract a larger clientele before too long. A posting I read in the Brookline Tab predicted the restaurant's demise because it was no longer serving kosher food, but my hope is that it will attract people who never visited the previous kosher version, but are now happy to have a more authentic Chinese restaurant in a town with few other options especially since the closing of New Taste of Asia.
So, after reading this we ate there last night. Service is, as mentioned, well-intentioned but hampered by the limited English skills of the waitresses. Menus appear to be the same as Somerville. We asked for a wine list and got a confused look.
"What kind of wine you want?"
"What kind do you have?"
She goes away and returns.
"No wine, you want whisky?"
"No whisky thanks, is that the only option?"
She goes away and returns.
"Mai tai, whisky, Drambuie..."
We settle for (mediocre) mai tais. Later investigation reveals a semi-stocked full bar (several whiskies, lots of cheap liqueurs, a few other random bottles) but no beer or wine, yet.
On to the food. It did not get off to a good start. Spring rolls were fresh-tasting but greasy, hot and sour soup was neither (a major disappointment, this is usually a bellwether item for me in Szechuan cuisine).
Fortunately, the entrees were a different story. I ordered Dry Diced Chicken with Hot Chillies, which basically comprised three ingredients in roughly equal proportions: small bits of dry-seared chicken, crispy, salty, tangy and spicy; sliced green chillies, fresh, tasty, and only slightly hot; and dried hot red chillies. Delicious, intense flavor combination.
Wife had Scallops Szechuan Style, in which the scallops were lightly battered and deep fried, then served in a neon-orange sweet-and-sour sauce (what DO they make that stuff from?), liberally dusted with red pepper flakes, and surrounded by a ring of al dente broccoli florets. An attractive, if somewhat unnatural, color combination. The scallops were melt-in-your-mouth tender, nicely offset by a little bit of crunch from the batter coating.
Preparation and flavor of both were excellent, portion size was substantial. Oddly, the steamed rice that accompanied them was dried out and almost inedible.
With the 20% Grand Opening discount still in effect, total for two with two drinks was $32. Not bad!
On the whole, given that they've only been open a few days and are still working out the kinks, it's a promising debut. I'm still feeling let down by that hot & sour soup, though. Sigh...
I'm jealous that people have gotten interesting vegetables. We had to settle on American broccoli after this exchange:
"What kinds of vegetable do you have?"
"Uh... would you like pineapple fried rice? It has fried rice in a pineapple."
"No. Do you have anything green?"
"Uh... uh... broccoli?"
I think it was Lee's (owner's wife's) pronunciation that confused me. But she seemed to be indicating that the specialties would be Hunanese, even tho he was from Yunnan. She was indicating that the cuisine was that of one of the ethnic minorities, so maybe this explains the misunderstanding. I will question her more next time.
I had some amazing stir-fried sprouts, that were teenier than pea pod shoots; she said some kind of soybean, but I don't think so. I've seen them at Super88, stems about the size of clover stems, and leaves not much larger than thyme leaves...Then I had a Sichuan dish of steamed fish and bean spouts in an oily broth with the nuttiness, and heat, of a million dried chilis...
They added a "special desseert" of a gelatinous pumpkin pancake topped with grated coconut...Not too sweet, actually, not bad. It sounds as tho the new chef will be adding a lot of unusual desserts.
They also recommended the pumpkin pancake, chewy, modestly sweet as you described, very finely grated coconut, very pleasant. More intense pumpkin would be better, a very occasional powdery finish make me think that they could increase the relative amount of pumpkin in the mix, but it's a very minor quibbles at most.
Homey twice cooked pork, thin slices of pork belly with green bell peppers and leeks, could be spicier and the meat more smokey, but generally the right flavour combination of bean paste and chilli. Reminiscent of the version in the other Zoe's.
The right hint of sesame oil in a light vegetable "amuse" of julienned vegetables (mostly Napa cabbage, perhaps turnip, a sprinkling of carrots and cilantro or parsley) -- nice vegetable crunchiness.
The current menu resembles the Somerville Zoe's somewhat, a section on Sichuan dishes, sizeable representation from Shanghai, a few of Hunan dishes at most (orange beef, Dong Ting prawns, a couple of fish dishes) but they mentioned that they still printing a Chinese menu that they claim will be done next week with Hunan dishes. I hope the Chinese sausages will be good, as Hunan is known for waxed or cured/smoked meats.
Not sure about what the front of the menu means by specialties from China's ethnic minorities; Hunan is a major culinary presence (and Yunnan too); perhaps they're referring to some of the dishes like cumin lamb which comes from the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Sorry I'm confused, is there a typo? -- they have Yunnan chef cooking Hunan food? Hunan and Yunnan cuisines are rather different -- Yunnan's known for (among other things) long simmered broths, whereas Hunan's characterized by "fragrant spicy" food. Sounds interesting either way, looking forward to checking them out.
The chef at the new location clearly has a more skilled hand (and mise setup) than the chef at the Somerville location.
I had a double-cooked pork in Brookline that was exploding with flavor, with very thin, chewy/fatty pork, thin sliced scallions and poblanos, slices of garlic, cilantro stems, and lots of oil.
The Somerville version uses much thicker cuts of the same type of pork, the vegetables are big chunks of green bell pepper and onion, and the sauce is much plainer.
Scallion pancakes at Brookline had fresher flavor, but couldn't quite attain the awesomeness of the Somerville version.
The tea is better in Brookline (it often tastes bitter in Somerville).
It's the same crappy rice at both places.
I think they haven't quite figured out service in Brookline. It was bad, but well-meaning.