If memory serves, the space that now houses Ding How used to be one of those kitsch emporiums that sold plaster lamps in the shape of Elvis Presley's head. That Elvis aesthetic -- so downscale-corny it's kind of cool -- is still in evidence in Fells If memory serves, the space that now houses Ding How used to be one of those kitsch emporiums that sold plaster lamps in the shape of Elvis Presley's head. That Elvis aesthetic -- so downscale-corny it's kind of cool -- is still in evidence in Fells Point, but it's gradually being replaced by businesses with pricier decor and more middle-class concerns. Such as Ding How. This new Chinese place is exceptionally well-designed, with a central horseshoe bar, lots of wood trim and a discreet amount of neon. Unfortunately, architects do not a restaurant make, and Ding How failed to hit a dinger with this critic.
The moderately priced offerings are varied, including a few specialties you don't see everywhere (mussels Szechuan, empress duck), some European-influenced items (wontons stuffed with crab meat and cheese, calamari), and even the Cantonese classics that faded into obscurity when the Sichuan-Hunan faction took over the Chinese restaurant scene. (When was the last time I saw a plate of chicken chow mein? The school lunchroom?)
The first few items we sampled were, while not perfect, promising, as they put a spin on the usual Chinese restaurant cliches. The hot and sour fish soup ($4.95 for two) was traditional enough to please hot-and-sour aficionados, but the addition of morsels of firm white fish gave it an unusual seafood tang that lifted it above the ordinary. The fried crab and cheese wontons ($3.50) seemed a bit more outre -- the Chinese aren't great dairy fans -- but the mixture worked; the wontons were light and greaseless, the filling delicate.
We had to order the "sculptured seafood and vegetables" ($14.95), if only because we didn't have a clue what "tender and juicy sea catches steamed in sealed sculpture" might involve. The results were very pretty, if not as ambitious as our imaginings: At the center of the platter was a bowl made of shredded fried potatoes, filled with steamed vegetables. Surrounding this were four small swans, made of foil wrapped around shrimp and scallops. The platter was further garnished with carrot rosettes. The seafood was simply steamed and minimally seasoned, the vegetables -- plain old American broccoli and carrots outnumbered Chinese veggies -- had been stir-fried in a mild brown sauce that, if it didn't interfere much with the natural flavors, didn't accent them much either. This is the kind of dish that should appeal to diners who prefer Asian food that doesn't taste too, well, Asian.
At first taste, the sesame beef ($10.95) was marvelous. The dark sauce was sweet and pungent, flavored with dried orange peel and tiny, incendiary red peppers, and the sesame seeds gave it textural interest and a special nutty flavor. But the "beef tenderloin chunks" were dreadful. The meat was tender but fatty, with a chewed-cardboard texture and no flavor other than that lent by the sauce.
"Ding How," its menu says, means "the best," and this new restaurant is so handsome, and so welcome in a neighborhood lacking in Chinese restaurants, that we hate to be too negative. So we'll leave on a sweeter note. The fortune cookies are great. Crisp and gently flavored with orange, they are ding how, and how.
Where: 631-637 S. Broadway
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 10:30 p.m. Sundays.
Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V.
Features: Chinese cuisine.