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A Mongol respite from the hordes of Chinese restaurants9 Medford Street, Arlington Center; 643-2456
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Fri and Sat,
11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sun, noon to 10 p.m.
AE, Di, MC, Visa
Beer and wine.
by Robert Nadeau
In response, Chinese historians are reluctant to admit that the Mongols had any influence on Chinese food, even in the capital. The lamb dishes of Beijing are ascribed to Chinese Muslims and Turkic Muslim traders. One book I consulted does allow that the Mongols increased the use of garlic and scallions in China, as they are also thought to have introduced ginger to Eastern Europe.
Actually, garlic and scallions are rather important in Northern Chinese food, and I would venture that the Mongols also had something to do with the amount of fresh coriander in modern Mandarin food. But, as the subtle and delicious "Mongolian Manchurian cuisine" at Kong Luh illustrates, there is lot more to this story than boiled lamb and scallions. Chef Dawei Wang has combined ethnic Mongol dishes, regional Manchurian specialties, and the finesse of Beijing cooking into a menu that will bend almost anyone's expectations of "Chinese food."
Surprises start with the first item on the menu, Mongolian rolls ($4.25). The filling is a familiar-enough stir-fry of bean sprouts and pork, but the skins are bean-curd skins, and they fry up rubbery and eggy for an interesting flavor that contrasts well with the ginger-garlicky hot soy dip that comes with boor-boor.
Of course the enterprising diner will have ordered boor-boor ($4.45), described as a "traditional Mongolian meat pocket." The enterprising diner will also have suspected, correctly, that these are actually pasta pockets stuffed with meat, like Peking ravioli, but smaller and made with a finer pasta dough to emphasize the meaty filling with a powerful admixture of scallions and ginger. They're available steamed and pan-fried; I'd recommend the latter.
And now for something completely different: my favorite appetizer, the "sour and spicy vegetable" ($3.50), listed in red type on the menu as a salad. I've had this pickle at other Mandarin restaurants, and I always end up addicted. This one is fine julienne strips of carrot, celery, and something white (perhaps daikon) in a hot-sweet-sour pickle, with a few evident long red dried chilies. (Warning: this column is not responsible for readers who eat a visible dried chili pod served in a dish in any kind of Asian restaurant. Curious, surely. Responsible, no way.)
Soups are also a strength at Kong Luh. There are specials all during soup season, but even now you can enjoy something like "three taste soup" ($3.50), combining shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms in a superb seafood stock. Or guang soup ($2) which sounds like a dull affair of bean curd with egg, but is actually bright and exciting, with cilantro and fresh tomato.
There is plenty of exploring to do on a menu with 23 house specialties and more special dishes listed afterward. For example, the 23 specialties do not even include the only famous Mongolian dish in China, the popular "Mongolian hot pot" ($18.95). This is a fondue where diners simmer their own meats and vegetables at the table, thus requiring a party of four to commit together. There is also a table ritual in many places for "Mongolian barbeque" ($12.95) but here it is merely a large stir-fry of lamb (or optional beef) with a lot of scallions and coriander.
Lamb is also available on skewers or as roast lamb ($12.95), which is overdone (like the Greek idea of roast lamb), sliced, and served over some stir-fried scallions. Parou ($8.95), though described as marinated and steamed pork, turned out to be a similar over-roasted meat, but served on top of the most delicious napa cabbage I've ever had, in a brown sauce. The cabbage was cut into fans, and imbued with several flavors, yet still a little crunchy. This I suspect is a Manchurian dish -- and a very impressive one. Our waiter, who was quick, sympathetic and helpful, probably should have warned us of the similarity of the two dishes, as the English part of the menu describes them in very different terms, and implies that both come with a lot more vegetables than they do.
There are 13 vegetarian selections, all rather interesting. The one I tried, broccoli in garlic sauce ($6.25) was a typical Mandarin treatment of broccoli. Given the Northern Chinese roots of this kitchen, I would explore further where cabbage is involved, as the terms cabbage and vegetable are often interchangeable in North China.
The wine list is short, but given the tendency of this menu toward roasted meat, wine is a better match than it usually is with an Asian cuisine. The beer list is even shorter; apparently Mongolia is the one country on earth that isn't exporting a beer with an exotic label. Kong Luh lacks notable desserts, but this is no problem in Arlington Center.
The room is the size of a storefront, but arranged across several windows so it is very bright and café-like. The walls are blank, perhaps a reference to the simple nomadic aesthetic of the historic Mongols, perhaps an effort at modern minimalism. With wood and green accents, the look is almost Japanese.
There is a wintry quality to this menu, almost like old Yankee New England cooking, although the many vegetarian entrees lighten that up somewhat. However, the important feature here, aside from the personal service, is that this restaurant opens us up to a new Chinese cuisine -- and a very good one, despite its limited reputation. Either writers from other parts of China have a prejudice against Mongolia and Manchuria, or chef Wang is simply a master who would shine with any background. In either case, one or several visits to Kong Luh are a must for serious fans of Chinese food.
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