Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations for parties over 4. Prices: Main dishes $3.25 to $12 at dinner, averaging about $5. Full dinners average under $10.
Please don't go to Pine and Bamboo today. I went on a Sunday a few weeks ago, when the dining room was full, and what they served me tasted like leftovers. But at two visits on weekdays, when the enormous room was only partly occupied, Pine and Bamboo showed itself an admirable Chinese restaurant.
First, let me tell you about Pine and Bamboo on a good day. Two of us started with the Triple Crown, an appetizer platter for two that is a bargain at $3.25;it presented meaty, crisp-edged spare ribs tinged with red and highly seasoned with five-spice powder and soy, as well as shrimp toast that compensated for its greasiness with a sesame seed coating, and fried wontons that lacked filling but were fragile and lacy. Another day the fried chicken wings [their preparation is identical to "crips chicken legs," though the menu description differs] were wonderful -- freshly fried and crips, lightly seasoned with that aromatic, anise-based five-spice powder, and juicy within.
Like many Chinese restaurants these days, Pine and Bamboo has a long list of seafood dishes, over a dozen shrimp dishes from sweet and sour to curried, plus scallops, fish filets and whole fish, sea cucumbers, lobster and crabs. Its beef and pork dishes cover the familiary Mandarin range, from everyday pepper beef to more complex steamed pork with winter vegetable. It has three kinds of duck, lamb, chicken, vegetables and noodles. Almost a quarter of the main dishes follow the current fad for Szechuan fire, usually being recognizably peppery but not searing. In general the menu lists what you would expect is a reasonably ambituous Chinese restaurant. It also includes, however, a Mongolian stove [meats, seafoods and vegetables prepared to cook at the table] requiring 24 hours' notice. And it has a fire cracker pot of seafoods ham and vegetables served swimming in a clay pot. But we ordered it on our Disastrous Sunday; the broth tasted like salted tap water, and the sizzling rice that gives it its name had metamorphized into bean threads.
But back to weekdays.Our shrimp were giant and oceansweet, served with crunchy green broccoli and snow peas for color and textural contrast in a translucent, garlicky sauce. It was a bit greasy, the shrimp was pasty on the surface from insufficient cooking of the cornstarch coating; but these were fine points. The dish was a success as a whole, besides being extraordinarily generous. Kang pao chicken was similarly grand a portion, the meat moist and fresh, in a faintly sweet and mildly hot glaze that was spicy and tangy but no challenge for fire eaters. Beef Peking-style was also meant to be fiery, but mild as it was, it pleased us with its rich, dark sauce spiked with garlic, ginger and vinegar. True, its mushrooms were canned instead of the more expensive dried black mushrooms, but it was a good dish. Even better was bean curd homestyle the soft curds in a sprightly sauce smoky with black beans and aromatic from garlic, ginger, ground pork and a hail of scallions. The meal and with unusual Chinese desserts -- doughnuts of fluffy deep-fried egg whites stuffed with sweet bean paste, or flaky, short-crusted pie even more stuffed with bean paste. You have to like the thick, prune-like paste to appreciate these desserts, and they cost $4.50 to $4.95 [to serve a whole tableful of people], but they are locally unique.
On that Sunday, that unhappy Sunday, they claimed to be too busy to make the doughnuts. That was the day that the dumplings badly needed seasonings and the egg rolls were filled with little but dry cabbage. The spareribs were unseasoned. Only the candied walnuts and the tiny foil-wrapped triangles of paper chicken saved the pu pu platter. The soups tasted as if they had been watered to feed the crowd. The shrimp that day were tough and dry, badly overcooked, fried in a thick, clumsy batter. One dish that almost passed was the beef with broccoli. The broccoli was crunchy, the beef of authoritative salty tang; but the whole was greasy, and the meat's surface were as slippery with uncooked cornstarch as the shrimp had been before. Dried-out rice accompanied our meal, but chopsticks and tea did not, at least until we asked a sixth time.
But those were petty annoyances compared to the duck. Our Peking duck was hacked into unsightly pieces, tasted dry and reheated. The small portion spread out meagerly over the plate showed no evidence of breastmeat, and looked far short of the half duck that $8 was meant to bring. We complained, but were contradicted. Peering at other tables, we noted that they fared better with their duck orders than we did.
So skip crowded Sunday. On a leisurely day, Pine and Bamboo serves generously and cheerfully, cooks its food carefully and seasons it skillfully. Waiters in black jackets display enthusiasm when they have time for it. Every detail -- from the electrified carryout sign to the red and gold arches -- shows the kind of flair that one identified with Hong Kong's elaborate restaurants. Outside is the largest canopy I have ever seen on a restaurant. Inside are acres of space dotted with high red leather banquettes and expansive tables. Indirect lighting glows around hexagonal cutouts in the ceiling. The pale wallpaper is embossed with Chinese designs. The grandeur is established. The cuisine wavers a bit on its foundation. But Pine and Bamboo seems to be doing right more often than wrong; even on Sunday, diners were taking leave of the hosts with, "See you next week."