Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: CHINA BY THE SEA IN BOOTHBAY HARBOR MAINE

Review of an enjoyable 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


It would be hard to imagine a more evocative, romantic name than China By The Sea, rich as it is with suggestions of the silk trade and great canvas-topped ships plying the oceans. With the restaurant located in one of Maine's prettiest seaside towns, Boothbay Harbor, and considering my great love of Chinese food, a review was inevitable.

The dining room is pleasant, although rather smaller than the impression one gets from outside. There are hints of things oriental, such as rattan light fixtures, but this could be a nice little restaurant of any kind. The pale green walls have cozy booths, the balance of the room has handsome black chairs and tables, all with white tablecloths. Two bay windows display a magnificent wooden ship model and a handsome plant. Unfortunately, there are also some plastic flowers, tablecloths are covered with glass, and there are paper place mats. Despite these kitschy touches, the room remains comfortable and inviting.

China By The Sea features those exotic rum drinks and punches whose only connection with China is in the manufacture of the little paper umbrellas, but I remain quite fond of them, and my Mai Tai ($4.95) had to be the most generous I've ever been served, and it was quite delicious.

Looking over the appetizers while sipping the great mother of all Mai Tais, it was soon apparent that China By The Sea is an extremely Americanized Chinese restaurant, for the list included chicken fingers, Buffalo wings, and French fries. However, scallion pancake ($2.95) is an authentic Northern dish, and the generous pancake served, full of fresh bits of scallion and cut into wedges, was delicious. The dipping sauce was an Americanized version of a hot and sweet sauce (somewhat reminiscent of bottled gummy sauces), serviceable enough, but then the pancake was good enough to eat without it.

With the arrival of our soups, another characteristic of China By The Sea became apparent - that is, very substantial servings at reasonable prices. Our bowl of hot and sour soup ($2.75) was large and thick with vegetables, including bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. This was a tasty bowl of soup, although the flavoring added to the chicken stock was reminiscent of the pancake dipping sauce - not truly the flavoring of traditional hot and sour soup. Frozen peas and carrots featured in the vegetable mix.

Our bowl of egg drop soup ($2.45) also was large and thick with swirls of cooked egg. The broth had a good chicken flavor without too much salt, but frozen peas and carrots again featured.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks are available although most of the menu consists of Chinese-style dishes. I asked our friendly waitress about the lemon chicken, but when she advised that it is made with chicken fingers, I looked for something a little less innovative.

Chicken with Almonds ($9.25) is an old standard in North American Chinese restaurants, and this was a very good version. The chicken, which was plentiful, was properly velvetized (a Chinese cooking method in which pieces of meat are soaked in a mixture of egg white and corn starch - when quickly cooked, this gives flesh a pleasant velvety outer texture). The vegetables included pea pods, bok choy, carrot, bamboo shoot, water chestnuts, and (a bit too much) celery. There were lots of whole almonds. The properly light coating of sauce was essentially thickened chicken stock.

Szechuan beef ($9.95) had a generous quantity of beef plus mushrooms, celery, scallions, peas, carrots, and peanuts. Everything was cooked as it should be in a stir-fry dish, but the sauce here was really too much on the sweet, gummy side to call Szechuan, tasting again very much like the flavoring of the hot and sour soup. Still, all in all, here was a large and hearty plate of food with nothing overcooked and plenty of variety.

With no descriptions attached to many dishes, we also ordered what the menu calls "moo shi" vegetables ($7.75) to be sure of having enough greens. This consisted of a large plate of attractive-looking, cooked shredded cabbage, onions, and carrots with half a dozen mandarin pancakes and hoisin sauce. Cabbage is traditionally the main ingredient in mu chu vegetables, but after being marinated and briefly simmered, its texture softens and reaches a point somewhere between sauerkraut and cole slaw, generally closer to slaw. Indeed, mu chu vegetables could be described as a hot, savory slaw eaten rolled in thin pancakes. The cabbage in China By The Sea's version is quite fresh and crunchy, and those used to a more traditional preparation may find it somewhat unsatisfactory.

Our bill, with enough leftovers carried home for a big lunch, came to $46.06. China By The Sea is not a place to go for Chinese food that is at all close to authentic, but for good, solid, fresh food cooked in Chinese styles, at reasonable prices, this restaurant would be hard to beat. And don't forget about the Mai Tais.

China By The Sea
73 Commercial Street
Boothbay Harbor
633-4449

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Dinner menu available all day
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $7.95 to $16.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Very Americanized but solid, fresh food at reasonable prices in a
family-restaurant environment

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