Le Tasty. It sounds either like a certain McDonald's sandwich served in France, or a third-rate take-out place catering to office workers. Indeed, this one month-old Chinese restaurant in uptown Oakland located on Franklin Avenue between 14th and 15th Sts. is just that at lunchtime, serving up your standard $5.95 lemon chicken rice plates.
But don't hold that against Le Tasty's Beijing-born owners, who actually harbor much higher aspirations. Hidden within the overly large menu are some pretty tasty and authentic Northern-style dishes that I haven't seen served elsewhere.
We visited the restaurant last Friday night. We were eager to try the place: the cold weather had us craving some rich, bone-warming northern-style food. Plus, the takeout menu I snagged while walking by one day promised 20% off dine-in dinner until March 31st.
The place is deceptively deep, with a main room holding about 50 diners, and two private dining rooms. That made its emptiness we were the only ones there apart from another Chinese family even more stark.
No matter, because that let us talk more to the owner, a Chinese woman in her early 40s. She told us that they picked Le hoping to capture some of the success of the always-packed Le Cheval, and Tasty on the recommendation of a American-born friend. Some friend he is, I thought to myself. The Chinese name, however, is much more elegant: Yu-hsiang fang, which roughly translates to the Emperor's Dining Room.
We started with a small order of seafood sizzling rice soup. My wife's father, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Calgary for 25 years, looks down on all sizzling rice dishes since it involves using the stalest left-over rice in the restaurant. I've always loved them, however, and not just for the sound effects. This $6.95 version came in a huge tureen big enough to serve 6. The distribution of ingredients was not optimal, however not enough crispy rice nor shrimp, too many crinkle-cut carrots. And a bit too much MSG, not enough seafood flavor.
Eschewing our usual green onion pancake, we ordered the 3 baked beef pies ($5.95). In fact, what we got was a minced peppered beef filling that was somewhat juicy wrapped in a doughy skin. It was indelicate and not as tasty as guo-tie, which we would both choose over this dish.
Things improved greatly with the next dish, a pine nut and seaweed fried rice. This $6.95 vegetarian-friendly dish exemplified wok hay at its finest. The rice was light and fluffy, almost puffed up like popcorn. The seaweed provided a pleasant saltiness that compared favorably with regular soy sauce, while the pine nuts provided a nicely-toasted contrast. Like the taste of forest and ocean and fire, said my wife.
The lamb with cumin sauce ($11.95) was a tad fatty, as lamb often is. The cumin seeds in the salty brown gravy had been toasted first they popped nicely in our mouths. Presentation was weak, as the lamb and sauce were plopped onto cooling shredded lettuce. All in all, we liked it, though it was just a bit too salty. Like ma-po tofu, this would be a great dish to pei fan, or to help you wolf down many bowls of rice.
The hundred-layer tofu with basil ($8.95) looked bland: khaki-colored slices of semi-soft tofu covered in a taupe corn starch-base sauce. The tofu had a nice mouth feel, but the sauce, again, was a bit salty and overpowered the scarce amount of sweet basil leaves on top. Again, another good dish for pei-ing fan.
Our hostess also recommended a number of other dishes: Foo young chicken, which she insisted was not Chinese-American style Egg foo young; Sweet vinegar beef, made with the thick dark red vinegar; Butter roasted crabs with salt and pepper; and their version of Shanghai-style xiao-long-bao.
Le Tasty is a good deal: we ordered essentially five dishes and yet the bill, after discount, came to just $34 before tax.
Would we come back? Yes, because of the pine nut and seaweed fried rice, which was sublime, because of the dishes yet to try, because of the need for hearty winter food, because of the female Chinese cook who wandered out of the back (how often do you see that?), and because an underdog like Le Tasty hobbled by its name and deserted night-time environs deserves a chance.