Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: PANDA GARDEN, PORTLAND, MAINE

Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: PANDA GARDEN, PORTLAND, MAINE

John Chuckman

China, perhaps the world's oldest continuous civilization with misty origins contemporary with the Pharaohs and fabled kings of Mesopotamia, possesses what is often regarded as one of the world's two or three true cuisines - that is, vast and varied collections of cooking arts, skills, and recipe traditions - as opposed to more limited collections of national dishes from many lands, tasty as they may be, we loosely call cuisines.

Apart from its many regions of origin - Canton, Szechwan, Hunan, etc. - Chinese food is found nearly everywhere on the planet with still further variation reflecting available ingredients and local tastes. It is a remarkable phenomenon, and only adds to the interest and excitement of discovering Chinese restaurants.

Panda Garden is not in a prepossessing location. It's in the corner of a small L-shaped plaza along Brighton Avenue. But when you step inside, there is pleasant environment, much above average for such locations, with a handsome bar, two beautiful aquariums of tropical fish, and tables and chairs that are quality imitations of antique Chinese lacquered furniture. There is a clean and relaxed feeling to this small dining room, with soft recorded music by Chinese chanteuses. Only aging indoor-outdoor carpet detracts from it.

I don't know why it is, but North American Chinese restaurants often feature those exotic cocktails like the Mai Tai, drinks which have no historical connection with China. Perhaps it is the result of all those old Hollywood movies that were supposed to be set in places like Shanghai or Singapore with expatriates drinking their troubles away. The drinks do seem a little corny with their umbrellas or fans or hollowed-out pineapples, but when they are well made, as they are at Panda Garden, they are a treat. Panda's Mai Tai ($4.25) is generous, deliciously blended, and includes the visual appeal of a chunk of pineapple, lime, and a cherry.

We also had a bottle of Tsingtao beer ($2.75). This rather sharp but clean-tasting beer, China's most well-known, complements most Chinese dishes.

Our hot-and-sour soup ($1.75) was excellent - flavorful chicken broth, peppery and sour with rice-wine vinegar, thick with slivers of bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, mushrooms, chicken shreds, and drizzled egg. Our egg-drop soup ($1.75) was very good, thick with drizzled egg, and with the unexpected (in my experience) presence of corn kernels flavoring the chicken broth.

Panda Garden has a few appetizers that like those exotic rum punches have little connection with China (Teriyaki chicken or crab Rangoon), but it has a good selection of classics. Our cold noodles with sesame sauce ($4.50) were excellent and large enough to provide a small lunch. The original of this dish uses sesame oil, sesame paste, Szechwan peppercorns, plus bits of various vegetables. Panda's bowl of cold cooked noodles is tossed with sesame oil, peanut butter, a touch of chili flavor, and scallion slices - a good example of Chinese culinary adaptation. Our traditional Chinese barbecued ribs ($6.50) had a half-dozen large, tasty ribs over a bed of shredded lettuce. Again this was an appetizer that might make a small lunch.

The menu is large at Panda Garden, including beef, seafood, pork, and poultry. Certain features of Chinese cooking do not make a large menu necessarily incompatible with excellent food, as, for example, in the use of the same shredded, cooked chicken or blanched broccoli as components of numerous dishes. There are only dishes cooked in various Chinese styles (no steaks, chops, French fries, or spaghetti). Another interesting example of adaptation is a section called Revolution Diet. These are dietetic dishes served without salt, sugar, MSG, or corn-starch thickening. I had the orange-flavored chicken ($8.25) at lunch once, and it was remarkably good - chicken chunks and vegetables, steamed and flavored with chilies and preserved orange peel.

Our Hunan crispy fish ($10.95) came beautifully and appetizingly prepared. A generous serving of white fish fillets, fried with a light, golden crust (no obnoxious, heavy breading), thickly strewn with slivers of carrot, scallion, and snow peas, all dripping with ginger-scented sauce. The sauce is mildly hot, gingery, and sweet, the fish cooked not a bit beyond retaining its flaky texture and moistness. I recommend this dish highly to anyone who doesn't object to some sweet flavoring with fish.

Our other entrée was one of the great classics of Chinese cuisine, Peking (Panda hasn't yet adopted the international standard of Beijing) duck ($21.95) - a dish that when made properly is one of the world's culinary treasures. And Panda Garden knows how to make it.

This is a dish that requires time to prepare (the honey-coated skin, loosened from the flesh, is hung to dry before cooking) - unfortunately, the fact that it is always made ahead sometimes can yield unhappy results with flesh that is tired or dry. But Panda Garden makes a batch each day. What we received was a beautiful platter of moist, shredded duck breast, crisp strips of the luminous, golden skin (the essence of the dish), four crisp drumsticks, some Julienned scallions, Mandarin pancakes (a close kin to flour tortillas), and a bowl of hoisin sauce.

Peking duck is eaten in the fashion of mu chu pork: Some hoisin sauce is spread on a pancake, then pieces of crisp skin, shredded flesh, and scallion strips. You roll it all up and enjoy something extraordinarily tasty.

Since we knew that neither of our dishes had a large serving of vegetables, we also ordered a simple dish called Buddhist delight ($6.75). This is a delicious mix of straw mushrooms, broccoli florets, carrot slivers, snow peas, slices of bamboo shoot, and slices of bok choy - the vegetables all retaining their color and texture and very lightly sauced - nothing more than a bit of thickened broth.

There are a few desserts on the menu, but we already had begun imagining, despite the portions of our feast we had set aside, some kinship with well stuffed dumplings.

Our total came to $74.55. I was charmed to see that the words on our bill were written in characters - those ancient, beautiful ideograms.

We not only had an excellent dinner, but the cost was remarkable considering that one of our dishes, Peking duck, was by far the most expensive on the menu. Our waiter packaged up enough leftovers, including obliging us with a few more pancakes, to provide a second large meal a few days later. I adore leftover Chinese food when it's this good.

Panda Garden
1041 Brighton Avenue
Portland
874-6935
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 3:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
3:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday
12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $7.95 to $21.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Excellent Chinese cuisine in a relaxed, pleasant room

No comments: