If you spend much time looking at food on Instagram, you have probably seen a few images of the world's cutest dumpling lately: a disembodied panda head drifting in a bowl, glistening and serene. The panda's button nose and fuzzy-looking ears are painted on the dumpling skin with bits of black sesame paste. There is a bit of herb cut to resemble tiny bamboo leaf. The sesame-paste eyes twinkle. It is food you would rather hug than eat.
You have been reading about a lot of Sichuan restaurants in this space, and you may be slightly tired of la zi ji and bon-bon chicken, odes to the fugue-like counterpoint of chiles, and stretched metaphors on the numbing power of Sichuan peppercorns. I don't blame you — my eyes used to glaze over at the mention of chicken Caesar and pasta primavera on the other side of town.
But Chengdu Impression, source of those panda dumplings, is a branch of a well-regarded restaurant in the old Wide and Narrow Alleys section of Chengdu, known for its braised pork, fish in red oil, and Chinese opera stage shows. And the new Arcadia restaurant is devoted to a slightly stilted idea of Chengdu that runs counter to the rest of what you find in the San Gabriel Valley — it may remind you of the regional restaurants in places like Paris or Tokyo that sometimes label themselves "embassies."
There are exhibitions of Chengdu artists on the walls. You can nibble pastries with Sichuan tea in the afternoons on a second-floor patio with a tree-framed view of the mountains. The customers tend to be less people on spicy-food adventures than groups of businessmen in one of the private rooms or young Chinese families happy to find a place to park their Bugaboos while they contemplate crunchy Chengdu beef jerky or oddly delicate mapo tofu, more intense in fragrance than in spice.
It is lovely to sit in the busy downstairs dining room, eating beef tendon stewed to a slippery tenderness with chunks of fresh bamboo shoots, whose slight funk heightens the mild flavor of the meat; or slivers of tea-smoked duck; or even the kung pao, that old cliché of chicken sautéed with chiles and peanuts given a smoky, bittersweet complexity with wok-charred edges and a hint of fruit. I've never had anything quite like the Chengdu-style lettuce — like a baby romaine salad with black beans, chile and a smack of smoky plum. A spicy fish fillet turns out to be pretty much the fish in a puréed green pepper broth you may have tasted at Chengdu Taste in Alhambra, less intensely amplified with Sichuan peppercorns perhaps, but flanked with soft planks of house-made tofu.
But if you come in the evening, you will be steered toward the tasting menu, labeled "Omakase." It is a quick, sharp series of tastes that takes you through the kitchen's greatest hits. And as two separate waiters warn you that the marinated tree ear fungus might be a bit spicy and that the sliced cucumbers might be vinegary, you might begin to suspect that you are being served a kind of tourist menu. You would be correct. But it feels less like a Chinatown B menu than it does something you might encounter after a day looking at artifacts and pandas in Chengdu. And at $45 per person, it might not be a bad way to go.
On the first composed plate, if the bun in which the spiced beef is stuffed is a little caky and dry, the wrap of impossibly fine threads of chicken and crunchy vegetables that sits next to it would be exquisite even without the numbing green drops of Sichuan peppercorn-infused oil. The beef-brisket soup may be the single least spicy thing you've eaten in a Sichuan restaurant, but the flavor of the radish simmered in it seems extra-rich for the contrast. There will be a quivering cube of that famous braised pork belly, served in a swirl of reduced sauce more familiar from French tasting menu restaurants; a beautiful, miniaturized version of the water-boiled fish served at every Sichuan restaurant; and three perfect kung pao shrimp. Sliced mushrooms float in a thickened chicken-pork stock. Where you expect a final course of rice or noodles, there are floppy Sichuan won ton in hot oil, with a delicate forcemeat whose texture suggests that the pork and vegetables were hand-minced.
Out comes the panda dumpling — a soft, glutinous, mocha-like blob stuffed with as well as painted with dense, sweet ground sesame.
Are you supposed to drink the syrup? Probably not — it seems to be little more than warm water whose purpose is to keep the panda soft and pliable. Is there any way to cut the panda neatly into two? The flubbery beast laughs at your inadequate spoon. Have you taken a picture of it yet? Please do. Then knock back a cup of Chengdu Impression's broth-thick Sichuan green tea.
A branch of a well-regarded restaurant in Chengdu opens in Arcadia
21 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia, (626) 462-9999.
Cold appetizers $6-$15; hot appetizers $4-$12; larger dishes $12-$18; seafood $12-$38. Chef's tasting menu $45.
Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Afternoon tea. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol (as of yet). Lot parking behind restaurant.
Chengdu-style lettuce; house-special pork belly; beef tendon with bamboo shoots.
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