Wednesday, July 3, 2013

China Village Reopens with Fanfare, Few Changes

By Luke Tsai
Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM

Last night at China Village (1335 Solano Ave., Albany), on the restaurant's first day back in business since a fire knocked its kitchen out of commission sixteen months ago, the atmosphere was as festive as a long-awaited family reunion. By 6 o’clock on a Tuesday night — despite there having been no press release or public notice — the restaurant was fairly packed. “Congratulations,” longtime regulars kept saying to the staff, even before they’d been seated. “We’re so glad you’re back.”

Although the beloved Szechuan restaurant had been closed for more than a year — and the dining room has gotten a facelift, and a few of the prices seem to have been bumped up by a whisker — mostly things just felt the same. And, for those of us who love the restaurant, that was as we’d hoped it would be.

The dining room now looks sleek and modern.
  • Luke Tsai
  • The dining room now looks sleek and modern.

Which isn’t to say that nothing has changed: The dining room does look sleek and modern now — amazing what a fresh coat of paint (regal purple and slate gray) and a few well-placed decorations (tiny gold carp figurines swimming along the wall) can do. The bar is brand new and is now exposed to the main dining room, so that the overall effect is more welcoming and open. Chef-owner John Yao told me the kitchen has also been fully upgraded and reconfigured so that the cooks have a little bit more room to operate.

Yao said he’s hired back all of his old cooks and his most experienced servers, but given how long it’s been, it wasn’t a surprise that on opening night the kitchen seemed a touch slower than usual, and the staff — just getting back in the swing of things — struggled to keep up with the rigors of a packed house. No one seemed to mind much.

Once the kitchen gets settled, Yao plans to introduce a number of new items, including an expanded selection of ma la (“numbingly spicy”) hot pots, including one featuring frog meat, and several whole fish options — “Hot Braised Whole Fish with Wheat Noodles” sounds great — prepared from live fish that customers can select from the tanks in front. He also plans to introduce some “lighter” dishes, like finely diced chicken served with Szechuan-style pickled chili peppers.

West-Style Thousand Chili Fish Fillet
  • Luke Tsai
  • West-Style Thousand Chili Fish Fillet

For now, Yao said he’s serving mostly just his old menu, but inquisitive diners can check out some of the new items on the restaurant’s revamped website. The plan is to introduce these new dishes gradually over the next few months — not all at once, since he’ll probably have to eliminate a few old dishes to make room for the new.

“It depends on the customers, if they are tired of the old dishes,” Yao explained.

I, for one, felt little temptation to stray away from the classics during my first time back. There was the cumin-spiced Village Lamb, a tender and deeply savory rendition of this Northern Chinese standard. Of course I had to get a plate of the spicy wok-charred cabbage, a deceptively simple preparation that brings out the natural sweetness of that humble vegetable.

And how could I resist ordering the West-Style 1,000 Chili Pepper Fish Fillet, a tureen of soup presented at the table covered with — maybe not a thousand, but at least several dozen — whole dried chiles, which infused the broth with all of their fragrance but only a little bit of their heat? After all this time, the first spoonful was just as comforting as I remembered.

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