One hardly knows what to make of China Chefs. Although the name tells us that this is a Chinese restaurant, it looks pure Columbia. Its style is closer to swanky suburban watering holes like Linwood's than to your typical shopping center Hunan joint.One hardly knows what to make of China Chefs. Although the name tells us that this is a Chinese restaurant, it looks pure Columbia. Its style is closer to swanky suburban watering holes like Linwood's than to your typical shopping center Hunan joint. Smoky glass and dim lights, not to mention a mostly Anglo clientele wielding well-polished forks instead of chopsticks, suggested that the offerings here would be both pricy and Americanized.
But what's this? At the back of the menu (a weighty, Leatherette-covered affair) is a single page marked "Chinese Menu," with a variety of dishes listed both in Chinese characters and English translation. The list includes items you would expect to find in tiny, back-street places in the heart of Chinatown, patronized by native Chinese and in-the-know foreign service types: braised buffalo fish cheeks, malah beef tendon, century-aged egg with tofu, yellow birds vegetarian.
And the prices are surprisingly modest.
We expressed interest in a couple of the authentic dishes, but the waiter indicated that our choices wouldn't be available until the weekend. So we stuck to the regular menu, with reasonably happy results.
We started with a delightful soup: baby clams with fresh ginger ($4.95 for two). The clams were served in the shell and had a fresh salt-water tang, and the pale broth was immensely refreshing.
The steamed meat dumplings lacked the soup's delicacy and sophistication, but $3.95 bought six large dumplings and a soy-scallion dipping sauce which gave them needed zip. We also tried an order of dan-dan noodles, which were served cold with a topping of peanut sauce and scallions. It was pleasant dish, mild but savory.
My duck-loving friend ordered yu-ling duckling ($9.95), a more than generous portion of cut-up Peking-style duck in a mahogany sauce with plenty of ginger and garlic. The duck itself was richly flavored and not overly fatty.
Purists might shudder at the notion of ordering soft-shell crabs in the dead of winter, but the order of three crabs in black bean sauce ($12.95) was too enticing to resist. However, the sauce resembled no black bean sauce I had ever encountered. It was, in fact, virtually identical to the duck's yu-ling sauce. It was a good sauce, but too heavy and intensely flavored for the seafood it was supposed to complement.
The waiter brought us cups of lime sorbet and fortune cookies before we got a chance to ask about the "eight treasure rice pudding" on the Chinese menu. So the mysteries of that menu remain as yet unexplored. A return visit is definitely in order. How else will I ever find out about buffalo fish cheeks?
Where: Hickory Plaza, 10801 Hickory Ridge Road, Columbia.
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.
Features: Chinese dishes.
Non-smoking section? Yes.
Call: (410) 730-1200.