It had been years since I had eaten at China Gourmet, and I was pretty excited to go back as I remembered the food to be really special. Would the meal be as good as I was anticipating? Can anything ever really live up to our memories?
Upon arriving at China Gourmet on a recent weeknight, we were quickly escorted to a table in one of the several tastefully decorated dining rooms. I can tell you that you will not wait around for service at China Gourmet, as the large staff works together to ensure that everything is timely. They work as a team and are eager to cater to your wishes. However, with four different people asking for your drink order, I felt rushed and uncomfortable. Prices are not provided on the cocktail list, and while the drink was expertly mixed and delicious, I was glad that I had only ordered one drink when the bill arrived and I saw that it was $11. China Gourmet is what your parents would call “a fancy restaurant,” and you expect that prices are higher than neighborhood takeout, but for a basic cocktail I thought that the price was high.
The menu at China Gourmet is not your typical gigantic Chinese menu with hundreds of items.
The menu is divided into sections of classics, what’s new and traditional favorites, each with just a handful of choices that makes it easier to find your favorite. For appetizers we chose the Dem Sem as well as the daily special dumpling. The Dem Sem ($4) was four delicious steamed pork dumplings with scallions. They were light, perfectly steamed and quickly devoured. The other appetizer was not as special. It was billed as a cream cheese with pork and vegetable dumpling ($1.75 a piece), but, while the dumpling was nicely fried, the only taste was the heavy cream cheese. The fiery hot mustard dipping sauce was needed on this one to give it any taste.
Entrées arrived quickly after the appetizer plates were whisked away and are elegantly presented table-side. There is a bit of showmanship in the way that the server creates your plate of food from the table-side stand, reinforcing the old-school glamour of the restaurant. While presented nicely, several of the dishes failed to live up to expectations in terms of taste. Mongolian Beef ($15), which is usually a favorite of mine, was lacking in both flavor and texture. The beef was overcooked and tough and the whole dish was just bland. Roast Pork Tips ($18) were tough and fatty, but the accompanying bok choy was fresh, crisp and cooked to perfection.
China Gourmet to me has always been about seafood, and this is where they’re still best. The fresh salmon stir fry ($22) served with lemon ginger soy was absolutely outstanding. The salmon was flaky, the vegetables were bursting with flavor and it was the most delicious seafood dish that I have had in quite some time. Another standout was the Szechuan Eggplant ($9). This side dish featured firm, thin slices of eggplant that were lightly coated in an appropriately spicy traditional Szechuan sauce. Vegetables are an important aspect of a Chinese restaurant, and at China Gourmet they are treated like stars. Vegetarians can create an amazing meal from the offerings here.
Did the meal live up to my expectations? On the whole, no. Overall the meal was uneven at best. Some dishes were not good at all, while others were top of the line. However, China Gourmet does indeed deserve the title of a classic Cincinnati restaurant. It has stood the test of time and while it does not do everything perfectly, there is an aura of elegance at China Gourmet that is not duplicated at any other Asian restaurant in the city.
It’s not for everyone, it is not flashy or trendy, but, as the seafood and vegetable dishes proved, it is still capable of being top notch. The restaurant is still special after all these years, but — like all of us — maybe it’s just not quite able to do all the things it used to be able to do.
Go: 3340 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: 5 p.m. –11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday-Saturday (Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday)
Red Meat Alternatives: Many chicken, seafood and vegetable dishes
Accessibility: Fully accessible