On the one hand, we thought we'd driven half way to Kansas City. We went south on Interstate 95, turned west on Route 32, north on Route 29, left at Owen Brown Road, and north on Cedar Lane, passing, in the process, isolated cottages luminous in the dark, and hearing the winter wind howl. Eventually, a swank plaza appeared on the right, so far from what we call home, we were pretty near amazed to find neon.
On the other hand, we left China Chefs happy and contented. We'd initially joked about some Chateau St. Nicholas wine in the entryway, but became more respectful when we were taken to an effective non-smoking section in the restaurant, from which we admired a chic room with Venetian blinds and a vigorous style, and watched a party of Chinese-speaking Chinese singing to each other in Chinese. We became even more respectful when we found we liked every dish we were served, including jellyfish.
The jellyfish were on both the main menu and the Chinese menu, tucked in at the back of the book, with English titles printed beneath Chinese characters. The Chinese menu lists more exotic dishes than the regular menu. Next time I'll look harder at them, because it's my hunch, China Chefs may be as good as anyone in the area at everything it serves, including odd things like pan-fried Chinese anchovies and peanuts, and saltwater head-on shrimp.
The restaurant is organized for American diners, with knives, forks, spoons, water goblets, fresh flowers, table linen, and, in the menu, a two-page photo spread of popular dishes, just in case someone unacquainted with Chinese cooking wanders in off a Wyoming ranch. We had to ask twice for chopsticks. Never mind, the food tasted authentically Chinese.
Our first courses were bun bun chicken ($2.95) and crispy jellyfish ($4.95). The simple chicken dish reminded us of lunch after an evening's meal of poached chicken -- cold, torn leftovers -- but leftovers can be enjoyable. These were cheap, likable and pleasantly sauced with what tasted like peanut butter, soy sauce and mustard, combined unconventionally to become faintly, inexplicably, slightly fizzy. The thin, noodlelike strips of crispy jellyfish weren't remotely crispy, but rather chewy and gelatinous. They were for diners who love gnawing the cartilage off bones, diners who, like me, when they eat quail, eat the skeletal structure and all, and not just the meat.
One of our entrees, kung pao lamb ($7.95), came from the regular menu; one, whole fish with bean sauce ($14.95), was on both the regular and the Chinese menu, and one, homestyle chicken ($8.95), was only on the Chinese menu. All three turned out to be several steps better than routine Chinese-restaurant food.
The lamb, cut into thin shreds, was exceptionally tender and there was a lot of it, mixed with scallions and raw peanuts, in a subtly sweet, temperately hot sauce that took its depth from bean paste. The combination had spark and sheen, and the vivacity of food that's been cooked a moment before, and attentively, not by rote.
For fish, we were offered a choice among grouper, yellowfish and black bass. Ours, a bass, was a tasty, firm fellow, with, as is customary in Chinese restaurants, head and fins handsomely intact. The sauce looked dark and heavy but was not. One of its principal components was "chili paste with fermented soy bean," but the fiery hotness of the commercial product had been modified, to clear the way for the clean tastes of fresh seafood.
Homestyle chicken arrived very late in our meal. We'd been warned it would take time, but even our waiter was surprised how much time it took, and said the large party in a side room had skewed the kitchen's routines. The preparation consisted of a full metal pot of sizzling hot chunks of chicken in a pleasing, delicately sweet sauce that included hot peppers, whole cloves of garlic, scallions and tantalizing thin strips of fresh ginger, long as an index finger.
We quizzed our waiter on how the flesh could be so beautifully moist and soft. He smiled, but said little. "Dark meat?" we asked. He hesitated. "Ah, but we like dark meat." He smiled. In an American restaurant, he said, when chicken's served to the staff, everyone eats the white meat, and leaves the dark on the platter. For a Chinese staff, it's the other way around -- everyone prefers the dark.
We drank Chinese beers ($2.45 a bottle) through our meal. Tea, lemon ice and crisp, fresh fortune cookies were all on the house.
Three of us spent just over $50 before tip for two appetizers, three main dishes and five beers. We'd enjoyed conscientious service, had eaten a delicious meal, and took most of our homestyle chicken home for dinner the next night. We counted the trip worthwhile. *
Next: Crab Shanty
China Chefs, Hickory Plaza, 10801 Hickory Ridge Road, Columbia, 730-1200
Hours: Sundays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m.
Accepts: American Express, Visa, Master Card
Features: Sichuan cooking