My love affair with China Village and its cuisine ended at Chinese New Year with a shoddily prepared banquet. Chowhound Marlon was hosting a group in another corner of the room and had an equally bad meal that night. The original star chef had returned to Beijing leaving behind recipes that the remaining staff could not execute. My bitter disappointment ran deeper than one poor meal. The thought of not tasting Chef Liu's cooking again soon was unbearable and I had to stay away to bar any reminder of happier days.
Yet with the passage of time, thoughts of reconciliation began to cross my mind. On Sunday night I grabbed my friend Spencer who lives nearby and had a simple dinner here. Mrs. Yao broke out in a wide smile as soon as I came in the door and rushed over to give me a hug. No prodigal child was ever welcomed back into the fold more warmly. I also spotted Marlon again eating with some friends and we commiserated.
For the two of us, I picked two apps and two larger dishes. Of these three were Sichuan standards and one was a dish I'd not had here before. I thought this would give me a sense of the shift in the kitchen.
A complimentary dish of pao cai was served, which I don't recall here before. It was fine, but not as good as the version made Little Sichuan Express in Fremont.
Our cold appetizer was cucumber with (non)spicy garlic sauce. The sauce was runny and didn't stick to the cold cuke spears very well, but this dish tasted fine and helped cool down the heat of subsequent dishes. The cucumbers had not been deseeded to just have the crunchy part, as I'd liked so much in Su Gia's version.
Next was spicy combination (fu qi fei pian) stuffed into small sesame flatbreads, as shown on the far left of the photo. This is not on the menu. Spencer has ordered this asking for "the hamburger Melanie likes" when he's on his own here and the staff somehow know what he means. The meats had very good texture, but the flavor was not as complex as in the past. Still a good version, just slightly edged out by Little Sichuan Express. The sesame bread didn't have as crusty an exterior or the layered texture of old.
Chongking "1000 chilis" spicy chicken wings (Chongqing la zi ji) was now deep-fried then sauteed with the dry chilis. Spencer quipped that this much be only a half order, since there were no more than 500 chili peppers on the plate. The flavor and fragrance were not as complex as other versions since for some reason it was not made "ma la". However, it was still plenty tasty, a bit sweeter than before and with more ginger influence. The chicken meat itself was juicier and more succulent than when it used to be dry-fried. We liked this very much and worked our way through the big pile until we got to the last of the multitude of wing fragments (aka "chicken ribs") and covered our dinner plates with gnawed bones.
Our last dish was a clay pot with braised fresh bacon, napa cabbage and vermicelli. This was actually listed on the menu as chestnuts with pork in clay pot, but the kitchen was out of chestnuts and improvised this for us. I had ordered it remembering a long ago request from heidipie for this dish. The gravy was near gelatinous and scented with star anise, and the gravy-soaked glass noodles were quite delectable. The texture of the chunks of pork belly (rind-on) was impressive, lusciously soft and still retaining their juices. As much as we liked it, we could only eat a couple mouthfuls, and the rest went home with Spence.
Mr. Yao stopped by our table a couple times to get feedback. I had been frank with him about the problems at my previous visit. He said that if I was happy with the dishes at this dinner, he hoped that I would return to try more. He explained that he now has a chef from Beijing and one from Chengdu in the kitchen. He said that I should expect the dishes to taste different than before since they'll each put their own twist on them but he hoped that I wouldl find them satifactory. The Chengdu chef makes the Sichuan standards. The Beijing chef has a hotel backgound and will be expanding the menu to include Shandong and Shanghainese dishes. He suggested that I try the whole turtle braised in a bottle's worth of Shaoxing wine available by special ordrer. I asked him how much the turtle dish might cost and he said a 6-pounder would be about $180. I asked more something more affordable in the new repetoire and he suggested the spring chicken hot pot that Marlon's table had ordered. These were the first tentative steps in a new courtship to win back my affections.
I think that China Village is still a worthwhile restaurant. I may be more interested in the Shandong dishes than Sichuan in the future as the Beijing chef shows what he can do. Maybe he can actually produce a good Peking duck. While the Sichuan side of the menu is still good, China Village is no longer head and shoulders above the other Sichuan places in the area. Now that there's a new team in the kitchen, I'm discarding my previous recommendations here and starting over again to suss out the best things to order. Let's put our collective experiences together to write a new play book.