China Chefs

Hickory Plaza

10801 Hickory Ridge Rd.



Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $7.45 to $12.95.

All major credit cards accepted

China Chefs should have a lot to celebrate as it approaches its first anniversary, having distinguished itself as one of the best places in the area for Szechuan, Hunan and Shanghai specialties.

Not to be confused with similarly named Cantonese restaurants, China Chefs has an extensive menu of inland and coastal dishes that makes few concessions to Western tastes (apart from the usual line of paper-umbrella cocktails), and the customers are loving it.

Customers also love the restrained urban chic of its plain dove-gray walls and shiny black mini-blinds -- no complaints at all at the shortage of red-flocked wallpaper, tasseled lanterns and rampant dragons. The food provides most of the color here, illuminated with pretty carved vegetable garnishes. Good and unobtrusive service completes the bill.

At China Chefs, the experimental and the cautious can dine side by side. While the jaded are having a lark with crispy jellyfish, baby clam and fresh ginger soup, and pepper/salt head-on shrimp, conservative customers can appreciate the quality of their old favorites.

The menu is priced by main ingredient. Apart from some regional specialties, there is a set price for any seafood, beef, chicken, pork or lamb dish, regardless of difficulty of preparation or other ingredients. This makes the whole fish dishes a particular bargain at $14.95 -- whether steamed or deep-fried -- and lobster a steal at $9.95 a pound.

Appetizers are not such a bargain, but a few stand out: barbecued spare ribs are lean and meaty, with a delicate but deep marinade flavor and nicely singed edges. The jellyfish, more crunchy than crispy, is a pleasant "texture food," served chilled in a sesame oil dressing, studded with scallion bits. Smoked fish is a generous portion of densely textured pomfret slices with anisey five-spice skin. Steamed and pan-fried dumplings have wonderful, moist meat fillings but too thick, doughy outsides. The Shanghai spring roll has larger-than-usual pieces of meat and shrimp in an otherwise ordinary filling and wrapper. Baby clam and fresh ginger soup was not available on any of my visits, but tofu and fresh spinach soup is a wonderfully delicate way to begin.

China Chefs's vegetable dishes are artfully prepared enough to stand alone as entrees. Crispy eggplant demonstrates the kitchen's light hand with deep frying. The thin slices are succulent inside light batter coatings dribbled with a caramel-like glaze. Szechuan string beans were very good too, each bean glistening with oil and speckled with crunchy bits of fried onion and garlic, with just the right amount of tang from pickled mustard greens.

The vegetables combined with meats in main dishes are top quality as well. Beef with fresh asparagus has a rich, sesame-flavored sauce and good quality, thinly sliced beef with perfect crisp/tender asparagus pieces. The chicken and pork versions of this dish would probably be good choices as well.

Twin-flavored lamb proved to be two lamb dishes in one, both in portion and in flavor: a cumin-dominated curry of lamb, peas, onions and carrots is paired with a Mongolian-style saute' of lamb with scallion and ginger. The curry is nothing special: a perfunctory jumble of lamb, curry powder, onions, frozen peas and carrots; scallion lamb is better. The quality of the lamb is decent, and lamb fans will be pleased to know that it can be ordered four other ways, each at $7.95.

General Tso's chicken arrives in a fragrant cloud of sweet spices. Easily one of the best dishes on the menu, the entree's big chunks of tender chicken covered in crispy batter don't swim in the candy-sweet sauce that plagues other restaurant's versions. There is just enough chili pepper-spiced glaze to moisten the chunks.

Another praiseworthy dish is the steamed whole fish. Large and very meaty, the bass is served with a tangle of steamed scallions on top, its tender flesh suffused with subtle seasonings. This is a dish for those who savor the naked, glorious flavor of fresh saltwater fish.

Not recommended, however, is the whole fish with bean sauce. A superfluity of overwhelming, ashy black bean sauce ruins the good fish it covers. Scallops and shrimp Shanghai has a very good, concentrated light sauce, though, coating large shrimp, sea scallops and chicken on a bed of broccoli florettes. Sweet-and-sour pork tenderloin, billed as "the high-class version of sweet-and-sour pork" is delivered without the promised batter coating, but with a strange, ketchupy sauce.

If you've ordered well, you won't have much room for dessert. But one of the restaurant's nicest touches is its complimentary lemon sherbert, followed by hot, scented towels for freshening up.

On the whole, this restaurant commands respect. Some details (dry, chewy boiled rice and diluted tea) need sorting out, but China Chefs remains an important oasis for good regional Chinese cooking in Howard County.

Postscript: China Chefs is now offering a new 50-item dim sum menu of dishes primarily from Shanghai and Szechuan on weekends and holidays. Unlike most of the dim sum served in this area, this a northern menu featuring items such as turnip cake, date-nut pastry, eight-treasure rice pudding, pan-fried noodles and soybean milk.