A decade ago, you could count the standout Chinese restaurants in Nassau and Suffolk on two sets of chopsticks. But, thousands of fortune cookies later, Long Island is in the middle of a little revolution unveiling the great cuisine anew.
Kitchens favoring more authentic dishes and flavors have started to alter expectations, challenging if not yet conquering the legions of General Tso's, chicken with broccoli, and their Americanized allies.
Master Chef is the newest, most upscale entry in the competition, bringing with it vivid tastes and artful presentations without dismissing Chinese-American favorites.
This menu is even more welcome at an address that has housed at least six forgettable Asian eateries since its first occupant, Homer's Oriental, had a splashy start in 1986. To open Master Chef, the building was expanded and dramatically redesigned.
There are enough lights outside to make you think the holiday season is well underway. You could spot the bright restaurant by car or by helicopter. Inside, the entryway and the dining rooms are filled with evocative vases, art of serene landscapes, elegant calligraphy, a compact forest of shiny woodwork, and the polish of marble and quartz.
This shouldn't be surprising since the management of Master Chef, especially John Hwang, has a resume that includes Shun Lee Palace in Manhattan, as well as two departed Long Island notables, Golden Woks in Glen Cove and Tung Ting of Centerport. And the chef who masters all this, you'll be advised, is Xing Ho, who gained his experience in Taiwan.
His tender, slightly sweet Taiwanese pork buns are a fine starter. So are the Sichuan-style dumplings with gentle heat; familiar, ample fried pork dumplings; and the classic Shanghai soup dumplings, loaded with broth and appeal. Cold sesame noodles and chicken Soong tap lightly into the memory bank. A curiosity: the pastrami-filled egg roll, complete with a slice of pickle, that's less exclamation point than question mark.
Enjoy a very satisfying version of wonton soup and an even better "emerald fish ball soup" for two, with the texture of the seafood somewhere between quenelle and matzo ball, in a delicate broth floating bok choy and goji, or sweet wolfberries.
The kitchen excels with the spicy cuisine of Sichuan. Mapo tofu, with creamy bean curd and, here, ground pork, is terrific. Likewise, the Sichuan lobster, which is hot but subtle, too. King prawn with mashed pumpkin sauce is identified on the menu with a chile pepper. It's still more soothing than incendiary. And the whole, crisp sea bass in Hunan sauce brings in another heat-seeking region, sweet and tart plus spicy, without overwhelming the fish. Go mild with prawns with walnuts in honey sauce.
But Master Chef's very big number is Beijing duck, with lacquered skin, tender meat, just enough scallion, cucumber, and hoisin sauce, wrapped in thin, housemade pancakes. Immediately, this Long Island duck becomes one of the region's best.
Orange filet mignon could be livelier, but does have a good shot of citrus. The braised Yangzhou meat ball crosses the plate bigger than a baseball, a minced pork mouthful enriched with savory brown sauce and bok choy. Snow pea leaves, brothy and light, are the right company with almost any main course.
Master Chef serves a cake of the day. Yours may be a puck of cheesecake. And you can order ice cream.
But a cup or two of jasmine tea will do. It has a delightful fragrance of blossoms and celebration.