According to The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, there are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets combined. And far too many of them seem hell-bent on following the mass-produced, fast-food model, offering portions much bigger than those in China and flopping the meat-to-vegetable ratio. These Americanized Chinese restaurants have basically succeeded in taking one of the world's most ancient, complex cuisines and homogenizing it into something so bland, greasy, sweet, gloppy-sauced, and batter-fried that it's no longer recognizable in its home country.
Fortunately, a few local restaurants are breaking this mold by offering a more authentic version of Chinese fare, including places like Tea House, Little Szechuan, and now Tian Jin. They're showing Midwesterners raised on La Choy chow mein—the one in the conjoined cans with the mushy meat chunks, vapid vegetables, and gray-brown gravy—that Chinese food means far more than General Tso's chicken (actual origin: 1970s New York City) served on placemats explaining the zodiac symbols.
Tian Jin's owner, Ryan Ran, worked at a buffet-focused Chinese restaurant in Chanhassen called Giant Panda before buying the business from his former boss last year. He remodeled the restaurant, named it after his hometown (Tian Jin, the third-largest city in China, not far from Beijing), and hired a friend from cooking school—an alum of a Chinese five-star hotel—to head the kitchen.
The restaurant is off Highway 5, just past the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, and it's much prettier than its strip mall location would suggest, with bold red walls, dark wood furniture, decorative screens, and paper lanterns. Chef Yang Yang's wide-ranging menu includes a few token Chinese-American items, such as cream cheese wontons, but it focuses mostly on Szechuan and Mandarin dishes indigenous to China. Ran explains that Szechuan and Mandarin cooking tend to be spicier and have more intense, flavorful sauces than Cantonese fare. That means you'll find dishes as common as hot-and-sour soup along with lesser-seen items like garlic headcheese or three types of pork intestine—crispy, double-cooked, and old-fashioned. Of course, there are also several of those dishes whose names are quintessentially Chinese, poetic yet bewilderingly undescriptive, including Happy Family and Triple Delight. "I want more Americans to try real Chinese food," Ran says.
My friends and I tucked into an order of shatteringly crisp eggrolls, which are made with thinner wrappers, similar to those in Vietnamese and Lao cooking. The eggrolls were stuffed with ground pork, jicama, and taro root, which gave the filling a smooth body and sweeter, more interesting flavors than the typical cabbage-celery-carrot variety. The dumplings, too, were a delight, definitely a cut above those at most local Chinese eateries. Rich, fatty meatballs had been wrapped in thick, chewy rice-flour skins, similar to those of mochi ice cream treats, and then bronzed by the sauté pan to crisp their exteriors.
Feeling adventurous, we ordered several unfamiliar dishes. An appetizer of thin-sliced gizzard was served in a spicy, cilantro-flecked dressing that reminded me of those used in Vietnamese noodle salads. The texture of the gizzard was a bit like mock duck, and its slightly livery flavor was thankfully masked by the flavors of chili oil and yellow bean paste. On our server's recommendation, we also ordered a popular Szechuan dish, boiled beef, and received a massive portion of marinated, slow cooked meat—it filled an entire glass pie plate—slathered in a thick, dark gravy, with wild, woodsy, curry-like notes. Each bite left behind a lingering, tingling sensation (I imagine it might be like swabbing a little Ben Gay in the inside of your mouth) created by a numbing chemical found in Szechuan peppercorns.
Szechuan food isn't universally spicy, though, and the restaurant serves several mild dishes, such as shredded strips of fish cooked in a tangy garlic sauce. Our favorite item was a Chinese-style fried chicken called Tian Jin's Chung King spicy chicken. Marinated nuggets of meat are fried and combined with chunks of red and green peppers, whole peppercorns, and chile peppers. As long as you avoided the hot peppers, the dish's spiciness was as pleasant as warming up beside a glowing fire. We'd take that chicken any day over General Faux's.
ON THE OTHER SIDE of the Twin Cities, the former Cesare's Wine Bar in Stillwater recently reopened as Domacin. The new owners, a past Cesare's manager, Aleksandar Pantic, and regular patron, Richard Hoch, bought the place from Brian Gruis, who is hoping to focus his attention on opening a wine bar in northeast Minneapolis. The new name, Domacin (pronounced DOME-ah-chin), is a Serbian term for a congenial host, and the nickname of Pantic's great-grandfather, a Serbian winemaker.
Since Pantic and Hoch took over this winter, the name may be, so far, the most noticeable change. The new owners did very little to the space itself—wisely, in my opinion, as I've always liked the cute, boxy dining room with its long bar and wide rows of windows. The restaurant's crown jewel is its cellar room, a private dining nook (it seats up to eight if you don't mind getting cozy) lined with wine racks and featuring a low, curved ceiling that makes the room feel like the inside of an oversized barrel.
Domacin may have the largest restaurant wine selection in the area, with a 300-plus-bottle list that highlights many Italian producers. For by-the-glass offerings, they might have a robust Tempranillo from a little-known Spanish vineyard or an ultra-smooth Oregon Pinot Noir produced by an adventurer-turned-sustainable-winemaker who Outside magazine named among the "25 Coolest People Now." Pantic and his staff like to encourage guests to explore new wines, and as thanks for drinking from the collection's best, he asks guests to autograph the empty bottle for permanent display.
Cesare's executive chef Jonathan Flatt remained through the transition, and his menu of small plates, soups, salads, and entrées hasn't changed drastically in the process. Snack-size items range from cheese plates and mini-burgers to crostini and personal pizzas, including a tasty one topped with chorizo, caramelized onions, mozzarella, and a sweet, jammy tomato sauce. My favorite was the stack of mini-grilled cheese sandwiches paired with a cup of tomato soup, whose acidity had a bright, salty tang almost like green-olive brine. I liked the papardelle with fatty bacon, golden raisins, and pine nuts, too, though the rather rubbery cheese that purported to be fresh buffalo mozzarella tasted more like the cow's-milk version. From the brief list of entrées, I chose the trout and eggs—two skin-on fillets stacked with lacy hash browns and a poached egg that could have been a gourmet fisherman's campfire breakfast if not for the blanched pea tendrils and lemon dill cream.
Since La Belle Vie left Stillwater, the town has lacked a true destination restaurant that would compel those from the west side of the Twin Cities to make the drive just for dinner. Still, Domacin and a few others have done a nice job providing a classy place for locals to meet for a glass of wine or celebrate special occasions alongside the antique shoppers and bed-and-breakfast guests. I think Domacin could still do a little tweaking to find the right balance of casual elegance, as I couldn't tell if the olive oil flight came off as helpfully educational or pretentious, and the $25-plus entrées seemed a little spendy for a place where a guy at the bar was wearing a Cabela's cap.
But not everyone is feeling so price-sensitive these days, perhaps. When one of my tablemates joked about buying a rare $8,000, 27-liter Flaccianello "Super Tuscan," our waitress informed us that it was already spoken for—a local had rented out the restaurant for his upcoming 50th birthday celebration and claimed dibs on the bottle. Just don't tell the party crashers.