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china village - wow, really?

finally made it across the bay for an eagerly anticipated lunch at china village in albany this afternoon. sichuan is our favorite type of chinese food and based on chowhound reports, i was expecting to be blown away. out of the five dishes we ordered, one was so bad as to be inedible. three were disappointing (below average), and only one was anything approaching tasty (not quite there though). i went with my mom, native chinese speaker and major foodie, so i'm pretty sure we ordered appropriately.

the inedible dish was the tea-smoked duck, totally dried out, tasting of neither tea nor smoke, and served with four sad looking sweet buns that nobody touched. the chili fish broth dish that so many tables seemed to be ordering barely had a hint of spiciness and was mostly uninteresting (especially as we've had so many stunning preps of this dish elsewhere). the char-grilled cabbage came doused in a dark and flavorless sauce. my mom pronounced the whole thing seriously underseasoned. they were out of rabbit, so we got some frankly gristly wontons drowning in another disappointingly unspicy hot oil. the only dish we managed to eat most of was the mapo tofu, and then only because it was the best of the bunch (not really a compliment). we asked for an extra helping of ground sichuan peppercorns as the spice quotient was seriously lacking up til then. what was particularly surprising about the relative non-spiciness of the food is how much we reiterated to the waiter that we like our food quite hot. since 2/3 of the table was chinese, i can't imagine why the kitchen would hold back.

i'd been looking forward to china village for ages based on the reviews on this board. to our taste, spices in oakland and sf is significantly better and trend in mountainview also beats this place out. am i just completely missing something here? chowhound has led me so very, very right in the past.

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  1. I love China Village, but, depending on what you order, they usually have a lighter hand with seasoning than most of the Bay Area Sichuan places I've been to, and I can see why you might find the fish soup and the cabbage insufficiently spicy. On the other hand, I think CV's cooks are more skilled at things like bringing out the flavours of the main ingredients, getting good wok breath, and knife work. It's possible that the kitchen had an off day, but it's also possible that you prefer a different style of Sichuan food from China Village, in which case there are numerous other good Sichuan restaurants to try around here.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bradluen

      i don't need all of my food to be explosively spicy. sure, when i go to a sichuan restaurant, that's kind of the expectation, but if there had been fantastic wok hay or sophisticated seasoning, i would have rolled with that too. instead, it was one of the worst chinese food experiences i've had in the bay area, and i've been eating chinese food here for 30 years.

      my main point was not to slam china village. it was more that i was wondering why they get so much love on the ch board when other places that i consider to be far tastier (spices, for example) don't seem to get similar accolades.

      1. re: possumspice

        Maybe the kitchen was having an off day. Sunday lunch on the third day of a three-day weekend might be the "B" team, or even the "C" team.

        I've eaten at Spices!3 a number of times (and will return there), and the food is not as sophisticated or precisely prepared as what I've had at China Village.

    2. I too was greatly disappointed in China Village after having read years of glowing CH reports.

      A few months ago we went for lunch on a Sunday; we ordered the fish soup w/floating chilis, and a dish recommended by the host/manager, which was a stirfry of smoked duck with some chilis and green onions. The soup lacked any special flavor or even heat (especially lacking the mala and deep bean paste flavor we loved in the same prep at the Szechuan place at the Richmond Asian mall), and the smoked duck tasted like leftovers, dry and reheated, and the dish was way too oily.

      The room was shabby and none to clean, with that stale oil/dirty carpet smell, and our table was sticky with oil. I won't be back.

      1 Reply
      1. re: lmarie

        I like China Village, but I am no Chinese food expert. However, I will disagree about the condition of the room. I've never had a table sticky with oil, the place is very clean and the carpet is just fine.

      2. The "west style spicy fish filet (in soup)" is a subtle dish. Definitely not the thing to satisfy a craving for chiles or "ma la." Actually most of my favorite dishes there are not very spicy.

        The one seriously spicy dish I recall having there is the cold "home style" chicken.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Agree on the fish soup--it is scented with chilies without getting their heat. If one wants hot, the fish soup w/ soft tofu is the way to go.

          Regardless, this report is troubling, esp. the tea smoked duck.

          1. re: lexdevil

            I've never had a good duck dish at China Village. My experience is that the tea smoked duck is as described: dried out.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              For duck, go to Daimo by the Pacific Mall.

              1. re: Sharuf

                Daimo's my favorite for Peking duck, Great China for tea-smoked duck.

            2. re: lexdevil

              I tried the tea-smoked duck once and liked it OK, but never ordered it again since Great China's is better.

          2. The duck at CV is always problematic. I would have told you not to order the duck.

            Did you have any of the dumplings? Any of the specials, whatever they were that day?

            Where do you like the mapo tofu better?

            11 Replies
            1. re: bbulkow

              i have had much better mapo tofu at snazz in london. and (perhaps unfair to mention) in china, as well as at my mom's house. true, this is a dish that has been very hit or miss for me in restaurants (fantastic when well done and horrifying when badly executed), but i would think that the sichuanese restaurant that comes up most often on ch as the "best in the bay area" would be able to do a pretty good version of this signature dish.

              also, between five dishes (and all specialties of the region; we didn't ignorantly order cantonese food in a szechuan restaurant...my mom grew up in taiwan and has visited chengdu on multiple occasions), it seems surprising that we were disappointed with pretty much all of them.

              1. re: possumspice

                It's very different to say "I'm disappointed in the mapo tofu and the whole restaurant" and "I thought it would be better than any restaurant outside of China, but there's one restaurant in London that's better, so I'm disappointed."

                I agree - China Village in its current incarnation would be an average restaurant in China. It's actually come down a bit in the last few years, after the chef change a few years ago. The menu is broad to the point of unwieldy. I don't know of better in the bay area, or, for about 30% of their dishes, in the united states, but I expect there's a restaurant somewhere that does do better, even in the US.

                Part of your misapprehension lies in only ordering sichuan dishes. The place is more quirky and polyglot. The founder, if I remember the story right, was from a high-end restaurant in Beijing, and brought together a number of dishes - classic and his own - from around the country. For example, I was shocked by the "duck in beer sauce", because it's a translation of Li River Snails into the duck domain. i think their translation misses the mark a bit, but it's an interesting dish. And they have their Village Lamb, which is clearly far north - about 300 miles, at a guess. The lamb dumplings are usually a beijing style, although I think two weeks ago it was a lamb XLB instead, which was a bit shocking but rather fun.

                The funny mixed menu is a problem. You can't just pick sichuan because the main cook is sichuan - cooks are clearly from all over, and it's kind of a roulette shot if a given dish is going to be good. I've gotten in the habit of eating a meal there most weeks, and each dish is a learning experience.

                My advice now is to eat the specials board, especially if there's a specials entry that isn't on the menu. That denotes some kind of dish the cook knows and is excited about.

                1. re: bbulkow

                  that wasn't *at all* my point. someone specifically asked where the mapo tofu was better and i named a few instances where i've liked that particular dish with a big caveat that the dish is not always an accurate indicator of whether or not a restaurant is great. as an overall sichuan experience, i named two places right in they bay area that i happen to like better (spices and trend). i'd be willing to wager there are more (i certainly plan to check out this place in el cerrito, golden bowl).

                  we tried 5 dishes (granted, on just one occasion) and based on that experience, i was underwhelmed. i certainly didn't say i'd never go back again. i was mostly wondering why this particular place stands out on the boards as the unquestioned best of the bunch when i think the actual playing field for sichuan food in the bay area is a lot more level.

                  for good chinese food in the u.s., i'd name at least ten places i like significantly better: din tai fung in arcadia, mandarin islamic in rosemead, spices in sf, eastern noodle, or any of the lanzhou hand-pulled noodle shops in nyc, i'm loving beijing restaurant in mission terrace, many dishes at great china in berkeley (especially the duck), the noodles at little beijing in sunset, etc. etc.

                  i fully acknowledge the fact that i may have ordered badly or that the kitchen may have had an off day. but given that i've had consistently good food at all of the above, and that it seems statistically improbable that two food-loving chinese people (plus one easygoing husband) managed to order that many bad dishes in one day...i'd say that it's likely china village is, at the very least, more hit and miss than the reviews on this board would have the casual reader believe.

                  1. re: possumspice

                    Since you are traveling across the bay, I'd wait a few weeks before giving Golden Bowl in El Cerrito a try to let temselves get together and past opening blips.

                    1. re: possumspice

                      I'm not sure which noodle places you have in mind, but I've tried all of the top sichuan places in NYC, and none of them compares to China Village, imo. I think it's pretty clear what happened -- you had back luck. It is not at all "statistically improbable" that you ordered so many bad dishes in one day. Five dishes ordered on a single visit is not a large enough sample size to draw reliable conclusions. In fact, the large number of positive reports by others seems to confirm that you were unlucky.

                      I don't mean to dismiss your experience, which sounds awful and could signify a downhill trend in China Village's cooking. But I think people are giving you a hard time because you're drawing sweeping conclusions from a very small sample size, when there's a much larger data set that suggests your experience was anomalous.

                      1. re: a_and_w

                        That's very odd. I moved here from the East Coast last year and have found Sichuan restaurants in the Bay Area (including CV) generally not as good as the two I used to frequent in Queens. I am not a big fan of Grand Sichuan in Manhattan. Relatively speaking I find the Sichuan place in the RIchmond 99 Ranch Market mall and the one in Cupertino village better than CV.

                        1. re: tvr172

                          Which places did you frequent in Queens? I prefer China Village (and, for that matter, Z&Y) to Spicy & Tasty and Szechuan Gourmet, which were the two best sichuan places I found in Manhattan/Queens. I find the spicing at CV and Z&Y to be more subtle and complex, and the fried foods to be lighter and crispier. Haven't been to the Richmond 99 or Cupertino Village places you mention.

                          1. re: a_and_w

                            In queens you should try some of the food stalls in the basements of the chinese malls. Most of them don't have signs so I can't pass along names.

                            1. re: a_and_w

                              Those are the two I used to go. I find CV to be on the greasy and salty side. Perhaps I favor the "modern" sichuan style. But then, CV seems to hold back on the use of Sichuan peppercorns in some dishes.

                              1. re: tvr172

                                That's a fair point re the peppercorns -- I sometimes wish they'd use more. But greasy? That really surprises me. Have you tried Z&Y in SF? My meal there yesterday was a little too salty but they are more liberal with the peppercorns than CV and not too greasy. (My super picky mom couldn't get over how non-greasy the chicken with explosive peppers was LOL!)

                                Honestly, though, I'm really surprised you prefer the NYC places. I mean, I miss them, too, since I now live in LA where good sichuan is surprisingly hard to come by. But I remember my first meal at CV being a total revelation -- I think I posted something like "Why the hell can't they do this in NYC?" on Chowhound LOL!

                                1. re: a_and_w

                                  That post is now memorialized and displayed on a blow up at CV! LOL. Great dinner last night: marvelous fish soup; meatballs (four huge with complex sauce), special lamb chop in clay pot (off the bone tender and marinated in Sichuan peppercorns; wonderful presentation with chopped cilantro and julliened citrus); charred cabbage (!); chive turnover (not good - greasy and dried shrimp very overpowering to delicate pastry); lettuce wraps (nothing out of the ordinary and don't really like iceberg lettuce, but still workmanlike). Only three of us, so we couldn't really order more although I think we contemplated a noodle dish...Owner came out to say hello, always nice.

                                  Cece

                2. I'm a big fan of CV, but I've noticed consistency issues from the kitchen from visit to visit (weekly), but nothing as bad as you've described. At its worst it's good, at its best it's sublime.