New interior, same great Chinese fare
When a restaurant closes for six months for much-publicized renovations, expectations are high. Qingdao Garden reopened in March, unveiling the new interior. Thankfully, the quality of the menu didn’t change. The interior of the North Cambridge restaurant, once shabby (in a way some found charming), is now a sterile off-white cavern. With mirrors. Make that two such caverns: the restaurant has doubled in size. On the bright(er) side: The kitchen is also bigger, and the folks at Qingdao are back at work making some of the best Chinese dishes in Cambridge.
The restaurant is currently selling more than 1,200 dumplings a day as longtime customers order them fresh by the dozen ($5.95), or frozen in boxes of 50 ($16). There are seven varieties, all skillfully handmade. The pork dumplings (with Chinese cabbage or minced green beans or leek), are sealed with a fabulous broth inside, which unleashes as you bite into it. The outer dough has a delightful, floury richness. The meatless dumplings (spinach, leek, and green bean) have made the restaurant a mecca for Cambridge vegetarians.
After dumplings, there’s an embarrassment of choices. “We have 200 dishes!’’ booms chef-owner Wen Ji Xiang, with a wide smile and a salesman’s delivery. There are actually 258 listings on the menu, and a dozen off-menu dishes known only to Qingdao regulars and insiders. (Ask for lotus root with pork, or whatever undisclosed Chinese vegetable is fresh that day.) The back page of the menu, in green, has the traditional and often best choices.
The chefs here, who are from Sichuan, manage to elevate even pedestrian staples like kung pao baby shrimp ($10.75) to a study in texture and spice, and simple fried rice with leek and egg ($7.75), which has an almost sparkling lightness. Some arrive arranged in smart color-coordinated ceramics, others are decidedly inelegant. Take our forlorn broccoli with oyster sauce (please): sad-looking florets sitting in a thin brownish sauce. But the taste turns out to be fresh, bright, and strategically seasoned to bring out every vegetal nuance.
The kitchen uses a special range to heat the woks quickly to very high temperatures. Dinner-plate-size holes on the range top look innocent enough, until a volcano of blue flame roars up with the sound of a jet engine, and 25,000 BTUs of heat. (Your home burners are about 7,000 BTUs.) This kind of heat, and the Chinese techniques used so well here, can work wonders with vegetables in particular. In a few seconds, the outside is deliciously charred, the interior flash-cooked to firm perfection. Then the chefs have perhaps a scant minute to direct the crescendo: broth, proteins, sauces, noodles, seasonings. The results are light, balanced, consistently a delight across the many types of dishes: Cantonese, Sichuan, Northern-style, and even Uigur (lamb with cumin and cilantro, $14.95).
Seared long hot (shishito) peppers ($9.95) are fun: The flesh is sweet, but random patches are blindingly hot. Sauteed pea pod stems ($9.95) are flash-cooked and garlicky. Chinese eggplant Peking style ($9.95) is seedless and subtle.
Part of the seasoning finesse involves judicious use of MSG. My dinner companions gasped when Xiang explained that “a small amount is part of Chinese cooking. But you need to use it correctly.’’
He went on to say that “the old way for some Chinese restaurants was lots of oil and lots of MSG. Not here. We want our food to be very healthy.’’
The teenager at the table pushes aside fried enticements for another helping of lightly sauteed Chinese lettuce ($8.95). Mission accomplished, Mr. Xiang.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.