Hits and Misses at Tony Cheng's

Restaurant: The popular Charles Street spot still gets high marks, but it's not quite fine dining.

July 25, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Few Chinese restaurants in town have as grand an appearance as Tony Cheng's, located in a stately mansion on Charles Street. Walk through the round archway to the spacious back dining room, and you'll find tables dressed in pink tablecloths and bright-red exotic blooms.

Waterfowl are worked in tapestry on banquettes and etched in glass between wood-trimmed booths. Shirred fabric lines a curved wall, an effect elegant enough for the White House. Aside from the out-of-place Christmas decorations, it's a room that raises expectations.

So does reading the list of awards on the front of the take-out menu, until the dates become apparent. This newspaper called Tony Cheng's the best Chinese restaurant in Baltimore, but that was 10 years ago.

Not everything improves with age. Tony Cheng's has been a part of Baltimore's dining scene for almost 20 years. It's still a notch above most neighborhood Chinese restaurants, but a meal here doesn't quite qualify as a fine-dining experience.

To start with what went right, we loved the Mongolian lamb, with tender, thinly sliced meat barely glazed in sauce. It was a visual triumph, too, with whole red chilies and long strips of scallion in various shades of green.

Another good pick was the jumbo shrimp with Sichuan salt, garnished with frizzled green chilies, crushed red pepper and scallions. Ten fat, butterflied shrimp were dusted with cornstarch and salt and fried until crisp and crunchy. The crunch was supplied by the thin, edible shells. My friends even devoured the tails. The slightly gritty texture of the cornstarch coating might be off-putting to some, but we liked it.

There aren't vegetables in either dish, so we put in a late order for Sichuan green beans. They were wonderful, stir-fried in oil with salty, flavorful minced pork. The serving was enormous, and the beans were a good contrast to our dinner choices.

On the downside, the sizzling beef and scallops were anything but. They barely hissed going into the hot pan over Chinese rice cakes. The salty dark sauce was somehow gloppy and thin at the same time. The scallops were small and chewy, the snow peas limp and overcooked.

We had asked for our kung pao chicken to be made hotter than our other Sichuan dishes, but the heat barely registered. The dish was mostly chunks of tender chicken and lots of whole peanuts, with the barest bits of celery and red pepper. It wasn't bad, but it hardly dazzled.

We began our meal with bon bon shredded chicken breast in spicy wine peanut sauce. It sounded exotic but turned out to be sweet enough to appeal to kids. Piled onto a large plate, the tender white shreds of chicken were covered in a thin, tan peanut sauce. For me, the dish was missing a contrast of textures and flavors. I would have been happier to wrap up the mixture in lettuce cups, or to have had the dish served over a bed of slivered cucumbers.

Our other appetizers were traditional favorites: steamed dumplings filled with moist pork and chopped scallions; standard hot and sour soup, a bit more unctuous than usual; and greasy but deliciously thin-shelled spring rolls stuffed with cabbage, tiny shrimp and bits of minced pork. The accompanying sauces were above complaint, the hot mustard freshly made and fiery, the vinegar-soy dipping sauce perfectly balanced.

Also above complaint were the smooth, unobtrusive service and the restaurant's signature dessert, something called honey bananas. Surrounded by puffed, fried dough, the chunks of hot fruit looked like corn dogs and tasted like funnel cake with honey and sesame seeds.

TONY CHENG'S SZECHUAN RESTAURANT

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 801 N. Charles St.

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $2.45-$8.95; entrees, $8.95-$31.95

Call: 410-539-6666

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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