Spicing up Fairfax's restaurant scene
Hunan dishes at 100 Degree C fill a gap
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011
The owner of 100° C Chinese Cuisine is shouting into a cellphone from the rear of the restaurant when a friend and I drop by for the first of several meals. The only time Ming Chang pauses from his tirade is to rush toward us to ask, "Two?"
A gaggle of servers appears, one to ask if we want a drink, another to set down a plate of roasted peanuts and shredded vegetables, a third to distribute menus. "Radish?" I ask the snack server. "It's free," he replies. Meanwhile, the server who took our beer and wine order comes back to tell us that, despite the list we just saw, the restaurant has yet to get its license, and the waiter who gave us our menus wants to know what we want to eat, even though we've been with the lists for all of, oh, 30 seconds.
100° C Chinese Cuisine does not make a stellar first impression.
Hang in there, Hunanophiles. The kitchen, fired up in August (and now pouring alcohol), knows what it's doing, and if you show the least amount of interest, the staff sheds its aggressiveness for charm.
The dining room is also beautiful, at least in comparison with the majority of Chinese food halls you tend to find in shopping centers. Outsize red lights, gold frames and what appears to be a giant jigsaw puzzle of a Chinese beauty on the back wall create an elegant backdrop for baby octopus with pickled red pepper and an igloo of sliced mutton (never mind the accompanying tunes from "Les Miz"). In one corner, a woman who turns out to be Chang's wife and 100° C's co-owner, Min Chen, concentrates on making dumpling wrappers that will be stuffed with one of four fillings and either steamed or fried. The combination of chicken and celery is shy on flavor; pork with chives is better, although the white casings are too thick (and sometimes gummy).
To get the best of this newcomer, you want to focus on the Hunan dishes that inspired the establishment's name. 100° C Chinese Cuisine employs three chefs from the part of China revered for the judicious use of heat in its cooking but also for the mingling of sour, sweet and salty accents.
To see what I mean, check out the hot and sour chicken: moist diced bites of meat tossed with chopped, pickled Chinese long beans, garlic slivers and red chilies. Each mouthful is a salty, smoky joy. The aforementioned octopus in a jumble of bell peppers, jellylike sea cucumber and red chilies is tender, crisp - and blazing with fire. The dish demonstrates the Hunan penchant for bringing together different textures. "Good for your brain," an overseer says of the sea cucumber, whose oblong shape explains its name. All I know is, I love the way the blend of ingredients tickles my tongue and lingers on my lips. Lamb bold with cumin and draped with a gravy of soy sauce and wine is another zesty destination.
A heap of cold sliced beef marinated in vinegar and sugar and garnished with crushed peanuts and earthy Chinese parsley (cilantro) underscores the power of taste in memory. One bite, and I'm back in a hutong, or alleyway, in Beijing just before the Olympics. Two bites, and I'm grateful for a restaurant helping to fill a cuisine gap in Northern Virginia.
As if 200 items on the menu aren't enough, a sidewalk sign announces specials. One particularly memorable detour involved cured pork with baby leeks, a contrast of amber folds of piggy decadence with crisp, bright green vegetable. A little sweet, a little smoky, the combination was pure pleasure.
There aren't a lot of vegetarian dishes, but those that exist are appealing. Matchsticks of dried bean curd glistening with hot sauce and seasoned with caraway is an appetizer apportioned as if it were a main course. Mushroom Tender Green translates to dark and velvety black mushrooms framed in softly crisp bok choy. A gloss of white wine ties the elements together.
The more I visit, the longer my list of favorites grows. My latest pet: snowy flounder and pickled mustard greens in a bowl of chicken broth that races from sweet to sour and back in every slurp.
Chang says the name of his restaurant also refers to the boiling point of water and the buzz he hopes the dining room will generate. As far as this diner is concerned, 100° C is well on its way to spicing up the scene.