It's always difficult when a favorite restaurant closes. There's emptiness in your soul from the removal of something familiar and comforting. A place that used to bring you pleasure is gone, taking with it all the small memories housed within. Given the high failure rate of restaurant ventures, it's an ache all too familiar to foodies.
(Chef Chen took over New Shanghai's home for over a decade.)
When our beloved New Shanghai closed, Cat and I found ourselves adrift, castaways without the safe harbor of our usual Saturday morning brunch spot. For a while, we flitted from eatery to eatery, searching for something to fill the hole in our weekend routine. We were unsuccessful. It's hard to find a replacement for a restaurant you frequented for over nine years. Yet, all good things must come to an end. Cat and I eventually accepted New Shanghai's departure and turned to its successor, Chef Chen, with open arms.
Serving a blend of Shanghai and Taiwanese cuisine dishes, Chef Chen has been repeatedly recommended to me by my readers. Its collection of authentic dishes rarely found in this part of Southern California have generated favorable buzz amongst the local Chinese community. There are some who contend that Chef Chen is the best Chinese restaurant in Irvine, placing it squarely in a head-to-head, North vs. South battle with reigning champion China Garden.
(Cashew Nut Chicken)
It's a fight that Chef Chen is more than capable of holding its own in, with a selection of superb Northern Dim Sum dishes and a stunning number of entrees. Given the sheer size of Chef Chen's menu, this review will focus on Chef Chen's Northern-style dim sum. I'll follow up with a review on their entrees at a later date.
Cat and I usually visit Chef Chen for our weekend brunch. When we do, the Niu Rou Dao Xiao Tang Mian (Beef and Knife-shaved Noodle Soup) is a must have. Beef noodle soup is to the Chinese what pho is to the Vietnamese; a quintessential breakfast or late night snack. Chef Chen's contains generous chunks of beef slowly simmered in a complex stock perfumed with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and other spices. What make this soup special are the thick ribbons of handmade noodles, made by shaving them from a ball of dough directly into a wok of boiling water. The texture, tender, yet chewy and resilient, is perfect for slurping with the flavorful broth and can only be mastered after years of study.
Since rice is difficult to grow in northern China, the cuisine focuses on breads, noodles, and other wheat-based products. This Jing Dong Rou Bing (Jing Dong-style Meat Cake) is a flat meat pastry filled with a mixture of marinated pork, ginger, scallions, and other seasonings. The flavor is reminiscent of potstickers, although the thinness of the pie provides greater surface area for frying and more crunch.
Dumplings in Northern Dim Sum are made with wheat-flour wrappers, as opposed to the rice or egg wrappers favored in the South, and seasoned much more aggressively. Chef Chen's Hong You Chao Shou (Red Oil Wontons) are juicy parcels of pork and shrimp served in a thick, sweet and spicy sauce. Despite the lurid crimson oil, the heat is mild and easily enjoyed.
A must-order at Chef Chen is the Xiao Long Tang Bao (Steamed Soup Dumplings). Their delicate, resilient skins somehow manage to contain a prodigious amount of unctuous broth, which burst forth like geysers when their protective membranes are punctured. The nuggets of meat floating in each pouchy prison are almost an afterthought.
The undisputed kings of Chef Chen's Northern Dim Sum lineup are the Niu Rou Xian Bing (Beef Rolls). Flaky Chinese flatbread, similar to croissants in richness of consistency, is rolled around slices of five-spice beef, shredded scallions, cilantro, and hoisin sauce. The freshness of the herbs, the flavorful beef, and the tender bread fit together perfectly. It's almost enough to make me forget what I'm missing. Almost.
Chef Chen - You can never replace the loss of a favorite restaurant, but sometime what follows can be just as special in its own way.
Cashew Nut Chicken - 7.99
Beef and Knife-shaved Noodle Soup - 5.99
Jing Dong-style Meat Cake - 5.99
Red Oil Wontons - 4.99
Steamed Soup Dumplings - 4.99
Beef Rolls - 6.99
5408-B Walnut Ave.
Irvine, CA 92612