Written on the sign, as well as the menu, at the Green Tea Restaurant near Stony Brook University is this command: "Remember the taste of China!" While the call may be aimed at Asian-born students and faculty, it resonates with anyone who values authenticity in a cuisine that's been subject to much Americanization.
From the open kitchen comes the clang of woks and spatulas. On a busy night, animated conversations, some in Mandarin and Cantonese, compete with the cooking din. Quieter evenings, you may see some students simultaneously working their laptops and their chopsticks.
And, at times, their spoons. Worthy of yours is the soup called shrimp dumpling, a hearty spinach-chicken broth with a single, perfect shrimp dumpling at its emerald center. It may be hard to settle for hot and sour soup at other Chinese restaurants after the one here, a complex layering of flavors and textures. If you're looking for your old friend wonton soup, you'll find it as a main course, rife with delicate shrimp-pork dumplings and thin egg noodles. A presentation you'll either view as elegant or silly is the appetizer called curry seafood roll — two little seafood spring rolls served in a martini glass with apple slices.
A compelling main course is fisherman-style fish fillet — fried flounder tossed with a mix of chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, black beans and dried pork. Walnut shrimp with mayonnaise, a Cantonese classic, is beautifully rendered. The showstopper, though, is cumin tofu — crisp soy cubes coated with a velvety spice mixture — that can make your eyes fly open.
In comparison, Peking pork ribs, thin chops with a sweet-and-sour sauce coating, seem ordinary. And while the flavors resonate in the "yummy chicken casserole," the bubbling dish is overcooked, the bony little pieces of poultry difficult to manage. One night, kung pao chicken, requested extra-spicy, comes extra-mild, necessitating a kitchen correction. Just right: noodles with braised vegetables, a comforting combination of toothsome noodles, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy.
Know that dishes may be brought to you as ready, in random order. And, as of now, there's no dessert. Small drawbacks at a dining destination where it's possible to "remember the taste of China" — even if experiencing it for the very first time.