New Sichuan in Highland Park
A new Chinese restaurant has opened in the space previously occupied by Hong Fu, which until it closed recently served very decent Shanghainese food. The new restaurant's name, Dragon Asian Bistro, does not suggest anything in the way of culinary sophistication. But DAB is in fact serving very good Sichuan food -- good enough that I have a hard time imagining going to any other restaurant in downtown Highland Park for now.
DAB's menu consists almost entirely of classic Sichuan dishes, except for a page at the back offering "Hibachi" and maybe a couple of other Americanizations. Unlike Hong Fu, there are no separate menus, and all of the dishes are translated into English.
I've tried three of their dishes:
-Shredded tofu with spicy sauce. These are cut like thin noodles, and served cold in a chili oil similar to what one finds in other Sichuan chilled noodle dishes. This dish is close to being excellent. The only thing holding it back is the tofu, which I found slightly too dry.
-Mapo tofu. A very solid rendition of this dish. Not quite ma enough for my taste, and it was served with firm tofu, which is to my knowledge not the traditional preparation (and not one that I preferred).
-Chongqing chicken. Excellent -- one of the best versions of this dish that I've had. There was a lot of attention to detail in this dish. The chicken is mostly served on the bone, and was fried perfectly -- the outside was coated in a crispy fry, while the inside retained its tenderness. It was cooked with a large amount of fresh ginger, a non-overwhelming quantity of red chili peppers, and green peppers that had been prepared in a manner similar to tiger skin peppers. These green peppers were a complete novelty to me in this dish, and they were great as a smoky and slightly sweet accompaniment to the chicken.
For people who care about this sort of thing, the service is very friendly, and the plating is unusually nice for this sort of restaurant. They were only half full on a Friday night, so I guess word is still getting around. My main concern is that the name will draw in customers who get scared by the intestine dishes, etc, illustrated vividly on the menu, and that the restaurant will start dumbing things down. Hopefully enough Chow interest in this restaurant can help to prevent that....
Too bad, considering there are already several Sichuan places in the area and now zero Shanghai places.
After doing some more investigating, it looks like my previous report was missing some important information. The restaurant actually has two chefs, and two parts to the menu (the difference is only indicated in Chinese). One of the chefs is from Sichuan, but the other is from Dongbei, and there are two pages of Dongbei dishes on the menu. This is very unusual -- I didn't hear about Dongbei restaurants in the US until a few years ago, and then only in Flushing, the Bay Area, and San Gabriel Valley. A quick google search suggests that this is the first Dongbei restaurant in New Jersey.
I've only tried one dish from the Dongbei part of the menu, and it was excellent: the mung bean noodles with spicy sesame sauce and vegetables. (I believe that this was the Dongbei da la pi.) When I ordered it, I thought that I was ordering a Sichuan mung bean noodle dish, but this was much better than any Sichuan mung bean dishes that I've had. The textures are the highlight of the dish, with the crispy shredded vegetables providing a nice contrast to the slippery noodles.
I've also tried two more dishes from the Sichuan menu: the dan dan noodles, and the fried lamb with chili. Both were quite good. The sauce for the noodles was fantastic, though the noodles themselves were slightly overcooked. The lamb was a fairly standard Sichuan cumin lamb dish.
I think this counts as an exciting development for Highland Park.
On a related note, I just had lunch at "China Dumplings and Noodle" on Old Post Road in Edison. The lady handling my order indicated that they were from Harbin, which is in the far northeast and I think part of Dongbei (Heilongjiang province). I had the "stew pork sour mustard", which was quite good. Slightly fatty pork, pickled mustard greens, cubes of tofu or gluten and flat glass noodles in a thin broth. I'd prefer the pork to be fattier and more falling apart; It seemed to be more loin than belly. Still good, and the dumplings too. Along with King's Village and Dragon Bistro, they're a nice northeastern trifecta.