As you pass Shake Shack and enter Taste of China on Chapel, you might not realize that you’re about to have some of the best Chinese food in New Haven. Lantern-like lights give the restaurant a romantic glow; the music playing in the background sounds like a whitewashed version of Chopin. The waitstaff makes sure that your table always has what it needs, but when they bring out your side plate of pickled vegetables, they inexplicably garnish it with Maraschino cherries. Don’t be put off by this, though; the similarities between this restaurant and McDonald’s end here.
Taste of China combines traditional Chinese dishes with the spicy flair of Szechuan cuisine. And when I say “traditional Chinese,” I don’t mean traditional American Chinese. The menu features classic Chinese dishes like jiaozi — dumplings — and jia cháng dòu fu — Home Style Tofu — but no American distortions: no General Tso’s Chicken, and no Orange Chicken. The restaurant simply refuses to sink to the level of Ivy Noodle-esque American Chinese cuisine; the entrées and appetizers at Taste of China derive from a purer Chinese and Szechuan cultural tradition.
This adherence to tradition applies to the freshness of the food as well. Every ingredient was fresh and perfectly cooked — no stale vegetables or flat flavors. Even the tofu seemed to explode with flavor, landing somewhere between a rare steak and a thick pad of butter.
After the Maraschino cherries, though, I didn’t know what to expect from my main course. But I was pleasantly surprised. My Ma La Duck swam in a delicious broth of spice and lentils, with a kick of heat at the end of each bite. The duck was tender and juicy (although unfortunately not deboned) so that it contrasted nicely with the crunchy lentils. And the traditional side of brown rice captured an earthy flavor that complemented the heavy oil of the duck.
I was a little confused by my dessert. After such authentic Chinese food, I was expecting something more along the lines of Red Bean Cake, or Chinese Donuts. Instead, I was served a mango cheesecake that, while delicious, wasn’t particularly Chinese. The cheesecake was so light and fluffy that I had to absolve Taste of China of this venial sin.
If you’re looking for a nice place to take a date in the near future, you might try Taste of China. The entrées are a little pricier than those of its blander competitors, but they’re worth it. And your date will love the romantic atmosphere and lively flavors. They may even like the Chopin, too.