Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Shopping center parking. Full bar. Prices: Most dinner entrees from $6 to $9. Typical dinner for two with beer or house wine, tax and tip about $28.
The Grand Wok, a relatively new suburban outpost of
downtown's Hunan Taste restaurant, starts with a
nifty idea: to be as grand as the name suggests. And it
is. Located in the space in the Commons Shopping
Center formerly occupied by the Apple Tree, its three dining rooms and central cocktail lounge are textbook examples of good restaurant design. Polished modern and subdued oriental are smoothly matched here: chrome and rattan alternate in the chairs, Chinese prints are framed in stainless steel, and the walls are Chinese red. The lighting sustains the drama: Spotlights accent the big potted plants, dark wooden blinds cover glass room dividers, and daylight filters softly through fabric-covered, circular windows. Through the windows, an unpeopled shopping center courtyard suggests a surrealistic painting. The waiters, in formal black vests and bow ties, are attentive and quick, and there are often two of them looking after a table. (That ratio could change as business gradually picks up.) There are other first-class touches, too, like steaming towels after dinner, and sometimes a bit of sherbet between courses. And all this spiffiness comes at prices only slightly higher than in most Chinese restaurants.
But what about the food? Much of it is reasonably good. Nothing is really memorable. These are not dishes you'll talk about on the way home, or the next day. Several visits have yielded some tentative generalities: The standard meats -- beef, pork, chicken -- are of high quality, carefully trimmed and prepared. Scallops have been particularly good. Shrimp can be particularly poor -- mushy and ill handled. Many of the highly flavored sauces tend to be off the mark, whereas the blander ones are more likely to succeed.
On to the specifics: Crispy scallops are a knockout of an appetizer. Four very fresh, firm, immense sea scallops, about an inch and a half across (surely enough to feed two), are golden-fried in a light batter. Shrimp cake is another good appetizer. It is a generous mound of pur,eed shrimp (without the bread used in shrimp toast) that is commendably ungreasy inside. Egg rolls, too, are fried well. The rendition of sweet and sour cabbage is good except for the odd and inappropriate addition of whole chili peppers across the top; their concentrated hotness leaches out into the surrounding cabbage, so that nearby bites are incendiary. Although the meat in the ban-ban chicken has been gristly, the peanut-soy-garlic-pepper-sesame sauce is nicely balanced. (Note that you can get what tastes like the same sauce, and none of the gristle, in noodles with sesame sauce.)
The good scallops, along with impressive beef, show up in beef and scallops in oyster sauce, listed on the page of "Wok's specialties." It's a dramatic, generous dish, sizzled in the serving with Chinese vegetables, and in a shy little sauce, slightly thickened and slightly sweet, that stays sensibly in the background. Wok's casserole, another special, also shows off the good meats. It's an immense crock, crammed with beef and chicken (as well as the unfortunate little shrimp) and with a mixture of vegetables that includes an impressive portion of those expensive black mushrooms.
Another special, Wok's duck, is a bird that's misbegotten from start to finish. Half a duck is brought to the table covered with a great deal of sauce in a deep serving dish. After a suitable viewing and admiring by the guests, the duck is deboned by the waiter, which causes problem number one: many of the smaller bones submerged under the sauce are inevitably lost, so there are great murmurs of "Be careful" among the diners once the eating's begun. Duck skin can be a problem, too: it is fatty to begin with, and after soaking in the sauce, we found it unpleasantly soft as well, like the skin on a boiled chicken. The long immersion also turns the duck meat to textureless mush, and the timidly flavored sauce is so thickened it's almost gelatinous.
But don't give up on the duck here. The Peking duck is flawless, and, judging from the great number of duck carts trundled around the dining room, it's a big favorite at the Grand Wok. Two of the bow-tied waiters attend to the tableside ceremony, one to carve and the other to spread the pancakes with chopsticks and fill and roll them. The other standard pancake dish, moo shi pork, may not come off quite as well. The pork is exemplary--impeccably trimmed, and in big, uniform strips. But one night the mixture had so much excess liquid it started to soak through the pancakes and dribble down our wrists before we could finish. (Slow eaters, take extra heed. Or extra napkins.)
A better pork choice is double-cooked pork, a dish of great robustness and texture. Uniform slices of good pork alternate with similar-sized slices of chewy bean curd, accompanied by green pepper and Chinese cabbage. It's served in one of the few strongly flavored sauces here that measures up: a zippy combination of hot pepper, hoisin and soy in which hot, sweet and salt exist in harmony. We found no such balance, unfortunately, in the icky sweet sauce that accompanies the whole crispy fish. Too bad, because the fish itself is excellent, fried firm in a fine, crisp batter.
There are three sauces that reappear among the various meats: Szechuan sauce, garlic sauce and Wok's sauce. The most adequate seems to be Szechuan, although it lacks the complex character and hotness of most good Szechuan sauces. We found the garlic sauce unexpectedly ungarlicky and cloyingly sweet. Wok's sauce, thick and brown, was unpleasantly salty.
Banana delight is a banana mixed with a little sweet bean paste, nicely fried and dusted with sesame seeds. It is a good, not-too-sweet dessert, and more than enough to serve two. On the other hand, almond bean curd with mixed fruits is mainly canned fruit cocktail.
In a nutshell, the Grand Wok isn't the kind of restaurant where you can choose at random from the menu and expect to be pleased--too many dishes fall short. But if you stick to what this place does well, you can enjoy substantial if uninspired Chinese cooking in an unusually classy environment. And without spending a fortune for the privilege.