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18 Eliot Street, Cambridge
Although salvador Dali wrote a cook book, the Chinese painter Ta Chien is the only modern artist to make it to the common menu, with the Szechwan specialty Ta Chien chicken. Through menu notes I have learned over the years that Ta Chien is "the Chinese Picasso," living in South America, given to bright colors (hence the Gaugin green peppers of the dish), and a native of the Szechwan province. I do not think that I have ever seen a picture of Ta Chien, or understood the relationship between the painter and the entree.
According to the owners of the restaurant, Ta Chien is alive and living in Taiwan. He likes hot, spicy food. That's the wole story, were not the mystery rekindled by the limited edition Ta Chien print on the wall. It is a landscape, viewed through a peculiar window a foot high and perhaps ten feet long. There are sea, land and river mouths, but the whole is rendered abstract and emotionally disturbed by the odd shape and the subtle colors. It is a plain and impenetrable as Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," despite helpful paper signs by the staff labeling various blotches as particular rivers.
No such ambiguity on the menu, which starts with superior spring rolls and delivers reliably satisfying Szechwan main dishes. This is a far better restaurant than its predecessor, House of China, which wasn't bad. Only the sameness about the sauces keeps it from greatness, the greatness we so yearn for in the leaderless Mandarin-Szcechwan cuisine of today.
Certainly there is no drift in the spring rolls, crispy outside but set apart by the flavor and freshness of the mix within. Shrimp dominates, but pork and mushroom are effective supports. The little rolls rush through various Chinese flavors like an overture, as though the appetizer was designed to appetize by example. The only (minor) flaw was an excess of grease on one of the three trials.
Main dishes are consistently satisfying, with no mistaking among six but must order carefully. It is not apparent to the menu reader that Ta Chien chicken, scholar's dry-fried jumbo shrimp, and rose shrimp are all as similar as adjoining arms of Ta Chien's China Sea.
You are safe with any of the above and shrimp in hot black bean sauce ($8.95). The latter is a very generous portion (a dozen large-to-middling size shrimps) in a sauce made complex by the addition of fermented black beans. The beans are the basis of a rich sauce of their own in Cantonese cookery. Here their aromas blend with the Szechwan bouquet in a way that I find very novel. Perhaps this is the "continental cuisine" of Taipei, where Chef Hou won his epaulettes at a major hotel.
Orange flavor beef ($9.50) is different enough from the other dishes for contrast, but not enough of the dried tangerine peel comes through to lift it to the top of the class. It's a good serving and a good dish, but the best of these use a simpler sauce, with more red pepper to open special nasal passages that are then messaged by the citrus aroma.
Of the four similar dishes, rose shrimp ($9.95) and scholar's chicken ($8.50) have the superior vegetable assortment. It's the Taiwan melange of broccoli, miniature canned ears of corn, water chestnuts, pea pods, straw mushrooms, and scallions. The shrimp (six this time) take the race with a hot version of the sauce.
I should emphasize that it's a fine sauce, with a touch of burn and two touches of subtelty. If it were an orchestra, though, I'd tell this sauce to add some drums and trumpets. I imagine ginger and garlic as the culinary instruments. I would try to retain the expert, greaseless stir-frying.
Tea is the usual bland stuff, enabling one to drink many cups. Water could be replenished faster, although this is not a kitchen for especial fire in the spicing. Blessedly, there is no music. Decor is minimal, which only shows off the Ta Chien work to better effect. The best of the fortune cookies tells us, "Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food." Is this subtle criticism of gossip journalism?"
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