The decor at Chopstix, a casual Chinese
restaurant that opened last September in Bay Ridge, is different
than the Chinese restaurants in my Brooklyn neighborhood.
Chopstix’s dynamic decor features primary-colored, modern lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and a mural of jumpsuit-clad Asian women eating from takeout containers. The menu, however, was familiar: sesame noodles, beef with broccoli, everything with garlic sauce.
I recognized the restaurant’s mission statement: "To cook the greatest, most delicious, most wholesome food on Earth" from similar claims on Chinese menus.
When someone walked up to the counter and ordered egg rolls and lo mein I felt pangs of sympathy for the restaurant’s chefs. How can a chef satisfy diners who look for some authenticity if other patrons expect so little?
Owner and head chef George Wong is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He admits that his food isn’t "authentic like Chinatown, but is very good." But while his dishes sound familiar, Wong’s interpretations are refined. All the ingredients are at their freshest; his sauces are light and cleanly flavored; and his aesthetic sensibility is modern: food is simply arranged on the plate with few embellishments.
Wong begins a meal with a complimentary dish of Sichuan spicy cucumbers. Everyone at my table remarked on it beauty.
On a simple, white oval dish sat thin crescents of striated cucumbers. The green-and-white slices were dressed in a bright peanut and chili sauce with shards of fresh garlic scattered over the top. The perfect yin and yang of the hot and cool flavors made the dish difficult to stop eating. It disappeared in about three minutes.
Wong has a sure hand with fried foods. Out of his wok come spring rolls that bear little resemblance to the leaden messes I’m served elsewhere. The rolls’ thin shells were a little greasy, but we enjoyed that. Large chunks of tender shrimp (not the mealy, tiny kind so often used as filling), moist pieces of pork and big, chewy slivers of shitake mushrooms replace the standard over-chopped stuffing.
Fried jumbo shrimp surprised me. Each shrimp is given a light dusting of Japanese breadcrumbs called panko that have a fine-grained texture. The shellfish are fried quickly resulting in a rare shrimp with a brittle, crisp coating.
"Like tempura," said Wong. He’s close.
Dumplings are handmade and taste nothing like the clumsy, flavorless variety I’ve grown used to. The wrappers are thicker than I prefer, but they’re not gummy. Four kinds of fillings are available: vegetable, chicken, pork and seafood. All the fillings are well seasoned and not mushy. The seafood dumpling, a blend of crab (real, not the pink-tinged faux stuff), scallops and shrimp had an airy, mousse-like consistency and tasted cleanly of the shellfish enlivened with flecks of cilantro.
I’d make another visit for the seasonal Chinese vegetables. Baby bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, is sauteed until soft in rich chicken broth with slices of garlic. (Vegetable broth can be substituted for vegetarians.) The dish - with its tones of cream and green - is a beauty; the sauteing brings out the nutty taste of the vegetable. Paired with a mound of old-fashioned young chow fried rice (fluffy white rice with pieces of shrimp, pork, chicken and fried eggs that bears no resemblance to stale-tasting, over soy-sauced takeout Chinese fried rice), the dishes make a sumptuous vegetarian feast.
Remember moo goo gai pan, that Chinese-American comfort food of sliced chicken breast, mushrooms and snow peas? I’d written it off years ago as an uninspired, under-seasoned concoction ordered by diners who prefer Velveeta to a good bleu. While the dish is still a safe bet for unadventurous eaters, Wong’s version, listed on the menu as chicken with mixed vegetables, is surprisingly satisfying. Flavors of garlic and ginger are mild yet apparent, and the vegetables are crisp.
Lemon chicken, another dish that is sometimes cooked with all the finesse of a bucket from KFC, is handled with sophistication. A whole chicken breast is lightly breaded then cleanly fried and sliced. Segments of fresh lemon and a mouth-puckering lemon sauce - more of a broth than a cornstarch-thickened dressing - are splashed around the meat.
That old war horse General Tso’s chicken, is better than most - the sauce isn’t sticky or overly sweet - yet I can’t get worked up over it.
Our only disappointments were a dull bowl of Cantonese noodle soup filled with fresh vegetables, chicken and chow fun noodles, and pad thai noodles that had the correct ingredients - baby shrimp, bean sprouts and egg in a peanut sauce - but lacked spark.
I wouldn’t have guessed that creme caramel would be the perfect dessert at a Chinese restaurant - yet it was. Delicately flavored with orange peel and ginger, Wong’s creme, made in-house, was light, cool and smooth on the palate. I’d pass on his heavy, crustless cheesecake.
A moment of drama occurred near the end of our meal. A couple next to us was served a platter of sizzling steak that crackled and perfumed the air around us.
"Aren’t you glad we found this place?" asked the man.
"Who would have known?" she answered, forking up pieces of the rare meat.
ChopStix (8405 Fifth Ave. at 84th Street) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Entrees: $6.95-$12.95. Delivery is available. For information, call (718) 238-1300 or (718) 238-1626.