In Columbia, shades of Chinatown

June 08, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You never know what you're going to find hidden behind a supermarket in Columbia. In the case of Congee House, we discovered an honest-to-God, Chinatown/New York restaurant - a really good one.

The word congee refers to a fragrant Chinese porridge. Congee House has that and a whole lot more. It has a generous menu, full of standards such as hot and sour soup, lo mein, moo shu and General Tso's chicken. This isn't surprising, since the same group that owns Hunan Manor, which has served good Chinese food in Columbia for many years, owns Congee House. The newer restaurant, according to its manager, is intended to be more authentically Chinese.

We have no doubt that the kitchen staff at Congee House prepares the standards well, but we decided to focus on selections we haven't seen since visiting Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco. These appear on a variety of special menus, which are handed to you along with the main one, or, in the case of the congee selections, posted at your table. The chef is from New York, but the special menus reveal his training and expertise in Hong Kong cuisine.

Many of the dishes sounded so wonderful - Cantonese chow meins, chow foon, dumplings, wontons, noodle soups - that we might still be at the restaurant trying to choose if the manager hadn't stepped in to help.

We decided on spicy wontons, shrimp dumplings in soup and a bowl of congee with pork squid and peanuts as appetizers. Each was sensational in taste and texture, each balancing the others with savoriness, sweetness or spiciness.

The spicy wontons were small and delicate but packed an explosive taste - at once sweet, sour and rich. The shrimp dumpling soup, served in a large bowl, had a dark, complex broth, and handmade dumplings brimming with tiny shrimp (rather than the usual ground-shrimp mixture). The congee was thick and rich, with egg white and dissolving rice, chunks of roasted pork, chewy steamed squid and crunchy peanuts providing varying tastes and textures.

Our main courses were fried tofu stuffed with shrimp, a platter of roasted pork and duck served with rice, an eggplant casserole and Sichuan beef. All were wonderful.

We used the Sichuan beef as a gauge of the chef's basic skills: The thin strips of meat were lean and juicy, the julienne carrots and celery were crisp, and the sauce tangy but not overpowering. The tofu came in two-bite cakes, lightly battered and fried. Served with seasoned soy sauce, the dish was light and flavorful.

Roasted pork and duck were served together on a platter, each with its own dipping sauce. Both were sweet and crispy on the outside, savory and juicy on the inside. And both were highlighted by the saltiness/sweetness of the plum and hoisin sauces.

The most interesting and surprising dish was the eggplant, served roasted in an earthenware casserole. Slightly crisp, very hot slices of bright-purple eggplant sang out a rich, peppery flavor lent by a sauce of onions and spices.

Congee House is in a recycled fast-food restaurant, but it manages to look authentically Chinese. Gold lions stand guard at the front, and inside, the kitchen is open for the world to see, although housed behind glass. Whole roasted ducks and pigs hang in front, and there is also a lobster tank.

The large, spotless dining room is filled with the round, family-style tables you see at non-Westernized Chinese restaurants, but there are also booths for more intimate gatherings.

Although it's 45 minutes away from our house, we'll be going back to Congee House. We can hardly wait to try the dim sum. Our only regret is that the restaurant is too far away for us to get weeknight takeout.

Congee House

5810 Robert Oliver Place, Columbia


Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $6.95; entrees $5.95 to $14.95

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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

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