As we entered the Hyde Park restaurant, there were so many notables seated around the main dining room, I felt as if we'd arrived at a charitable fundraising event. Cozy, friendly and accommodating, the white linen tables turned over quickly. While this is not fast food and the kitchen encourages special requests, the regulars know this as the place to come for a good fast meal. It felt as if there were one server per table, but without conspicuous hovering or cloying.
When I asked about white wines by the glass, the server offered a sample of each to aid in my deliberation. Once I'd made my selection, she brought the bottle over to fill the glass and allow me to review the label: a surprisingly nice touch extended to a non-regular that might encourage me to visit more often.
I was drawn to a favorite appetizer: Five Spice Oysters ($14.95). The luscious, fresh oysters were gently dredged in a mixture of Five Spice powder with a little additional star anise and then quickly deep-fried. The finely ground blend of spices (cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns) created an aromatic and subtle flavor to the tender ocean delicacies. Moist on the inside and crispy on the outside, these fragrant little clouds were a pure gastronomic delight
Our server split both the oysters and the Spring Roll ($1.95) for us, which saved us from squishing or scooting the roll across the table. A pale golden brown, the light and crispy roll was piping hot with finely chopped vegetables and chicken and nicely complimented with the Chinese mustard and plum sauce.
Since we were enjoying mild weather between heat waves, we just had to sample the Hot and Sour Soup ($2.50). A rich, full flavor chicken broth was the base for the velvety soup kicked up with sliced and chopped green onions, chunks of tofu and a mildly numbing spicy bite that left a pleasing aftertaste.
Unlike many local Chinese restaurants, China Gourmet is the place for fresh fish. I had quickly selected the Fresh Rainbow Trout ($16.95), only to learn that the kitchen had served the last filet. I then chose the walleye, only to have our server return offering halibut ($21.95). It was steamed with a ginger and scallion sauce, one of three options available for steamed or pan fried fish. The light-colored, boneless filet was moist, topped with the golden oil-based sauce strewn with green onion and ginger slivers. Luscious fish like this is a good guidepost as to why there are so many regular patrons.
Tiny strips of meat were tumbled with sliced water chestnuts in the dark hoisin sauce in the Shredded Pork Szechuan ($12.95). Sprinkled with more green onion slices, the heat started at the front of the lips and had a very pleasing ginger tang. We coupled our entrées with a half order of Szechuan String Beans ($4.95). Spiced with red chili pepper, the bright green beans were crisp with a lip-smacking sauce made with minced onions that clung to the beans. Slightly salty, mildly spicy (we thought it could have been a little hotter), the beans had a savory zest. We found that the entrée combinations had a blend of sweet and spicy flavors from mild to bracing, creating interesting and stimulating palate pleasures.
Content after completing our meal, we then learned that Bonbonerie made the desserts. With cups of decaffeinated coffee, I guarded my Lemon Cake (desserts are $5.25). Bits of zest surfaced in the layers of fragrant sponge cake, which were coated with a pretty orange glaze and fluted with butter cream flowers. The Carrot Cake was characteristically moist with an overtone of ginger and bits of citrus zest. Covered with a cream cheese frosting, the sides were dusted with chopped walnuts. Needless to say, there was scarcely a crumb left on either plate.
In turning over the daily operation over to his sons, Howard and Tenley, Bing Moy has created a legacy of attention to detail, quality fresh ingredients and superb service that are the family benchmarks. Whether entertaining guests or clients, or for a night out, one can feel like an insider at the China Gourmet, even on the first visit.
The China Gourmet
Go: 3340 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Saturday Noon-10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Several fish, seafood and vegetarian selections. In fact, there are more non-red meat selections than beef options.
Other: Carryout available, but not for all items