We review about 40 restaurants a year in this column and among those, we would classify no more than half a dozen as personal favorites -- good enough to recommend when friends ask us where to eat.
China Taste, located for nine months at the former site of the Szechuan Garden, qualifies for that small list. Why? Because it's an uncommonly beautiful place, with as handsome a dining room as most of the new upscale Chinese restaurants, but without their steep prices. Because the staff is earnest, caring and efficient. Because the food is prepared with painstaking care: Chinese cooking is labor-intensive, yet there's no skimping here when it comes to the trimming and dicing.
And because all the dishes, even those that use expensive ingredients, are portioned with a generous hand. And because the sauces are remarkably good -- subtle where they should be, robust when it's appropriate, and applied with restraint so they coat the food rather than burry it. There are many Chinese restaurants that have some of these virtues. China Taste is one of the few that combines them all.
Fried appetizers are flawless: delicate, crackly crisp egg rolls, the fluffiest of shrimp toast. This is one of the few places where we would recommend the pu-pu tray, because the skewered beef is smashing, and because even the fried wontons are good. Steamed dumplings have properly satiny wrappers, and their fillings are juicy and gently flavored. The Szechuan cabbage soup is a delight: a rich chicken broth with strips of crisp cabbage and tender pork spiked with slivers of salty pickles.
Although you won't go wrong with any of the entrees, here are some high points:
Among the intensely flavored dishes, Hunan lamb is beautifully trimmed and succulent, served with lively broccoli in a robust, zesty sauce with plenty of garlic and pepper. Perhaps even better is Szechuan twice-cooked pork, with melt-in-your-mouth meat and big chunks of green pepper in a beautiful, zingy sauce in which there's a perfect balance between sweetness, hotness and garlic. Kung po chicken is a paragon, with plenty of peanuts in the mixture and a hot-sweet-salt sauce that just coats the morsels.
At the other end of the flavor-intensity spectrum is "triple delicacies chicken," the shreds of meat mixed with carrot strips and served in a mild, subtle fluff of an egg-white sauce. Gentle, but intriguing. A more common mild dish is moo-shi pork, flawlessly done here with plenty of egg and just the right dryness to stand up to the pancake wrapper.
The sizzling platters -- beef or seafood and vegetables mixed at tableside with superheated rice in a cloud of fragrant steam -- are first class. At $8.25 for a very generous platter, they're a remarkable buy, too.
Finally, the crispy duck is among the best in the area, with an irresistible, barely crackly skin, a remarkable freedom from excess fat, tender, succulent meat, and admirable restraint with the anise flavoring.
This place is a winner.