69 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck
AMBIENCE: Spare and modern
SERVICE: Swift and professional, with slight language bumps
ESSENTIALS: Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m.; wheelchair accessible; street parking
At the same time that Long Island is experiencing a boom in authentic, regional Chinese restaurants, Saaho Village is taking Cantonese cooking in an entirely new direction, filling dumplings with foie gras and eel, pairing rice noodles with truffles.
Innovation, after all, is not the exclusive province of American and European chefs.
Experienced practitioners of Cantonese cuisine, one of the world’s most sophisticated, are just as inspired to innovate, and owner Spencer Chan has decades of experience, having been a partner at three seminal Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown: 20 Mott, Golden Unicorn and Sweet-n-Tart (all now closed). At Saaho Village, his kitchen is putting out food that is imaginative and refined, utterly lacking in oily finishes or gluey sauces, and often employing surprising combinations of Eastern and Western ingredients.
“Windmill” dumplings, for example, are plump little tricornered packages whose translucent skins shone pink from their stuffing of foie gras and shrimp mousse. In another winning dumpling, barbecued eel and chayote (also known, in Cantonese, as Buddha’s hand melon) were felicitously paired inside neatly pleated bundles.
Sometimes the kitchen tweaks a classic with startling results. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plate of fried rice to compare to this one, a golden mound of grains studded with bits of roasted eel, Chinese broccoli, scallions and egg, and crowned with a bright-orange top knot of smelt roe.
Other times it puts out something entirely new, such as the duck-filled crispy wok crepe, a plate-sized pancake that’s glossily crunchy on one side, spongy on the other — sort of a cross between crepe and crumpet. It is folded around slices of roast duck, laced with hoisin and crunchified with cucumbers and romaine lettuce.
Speaking of romaine — as I have never done in the context of Chinese food — I was dazzled by a whole heart of it that had been braised into verdant silk and topped with fried shallots. And speaking of cucumbers, slim Kirbys, hewed into half logs, formed a little corral around a heap of briny steamed cockles (out of the shell) that had been showered with crisp threads of dried anchovy and flakes of Yunnan chili,
There are also experiments that fall flat. Poached lamb belly with spicy cumin was about as exciting as my grandmother’s brisket and, atop a bed of tofu skin and garnished with goji berries, the plate was a dreary symphony of beige, brown and ocher. I pity the poor lotus root that had been stuffed with seafood mousse and chicken sausage, deep fried and ringed around an entirely unrelated pile of steamed enoki and shiitake mushrooms.
Prices at Saaho Village are high: $9 for three dumplings, $14 for the romaine lettuce, $18 for that fried rice. I’m all for Chinese fine dining. This is one of the world’s greatest cuisines and can be practiced at Michelin-star-worthy heights. But Saaho Village does not aim for an elevated experience. Tables are bare of linens or even place mats, plates are melamine, napkins are paper.
Unsuccessful experiments, slight sticker shock, modest surroundings — none of these are deal breakers in my book. More problematic is the restaurant’s decision to hitch its wagon to a rice-noodle star. The restaurant’s namesake is Saaho, a town in Guangzhou (formerly Canton, in Southern China) that is famous for its delicate, translucent rice noodles. Their traditional manufacture is depicted in a series of eight stylized woodcut panels (virtually the restaurant’s only decoration) and about a third of the menu is devoted to them.
Confession: when it comes to noodles I am Team Wheat all the way. Rice noodles have none of wheat’s suppleness. In stir fries they tend to get gluey, and in hot soups they quickly lose their elasticity and break. But I tried to keep an open mind as I sampled dishes featuring two types of rice noodles, cheong fun and ho fun.
Cheong fun, a couple of inches wide, are the pliant, diaphanous sheets you see wrapped around shrimp, pork and more on the dim sum table. At Saaho these supporting players are drafted into service as headliners, and they are not up to the task. Tightly coiled, pan seared with “premium aged soy sauce,” and stacked like Lincoln logs, cheong fun are no match for their simple garnish of slivered slow peas, bean sprouts and red pepper. Nor do the coils do anything for a flabby-skinned roast duck dish.
Ho fun, about a half-inch wide, are the weakest link in an otherwise appealing seafood soup — they’ve all fallen apart by the time I’m halfway through eating. A “house special” involves ho fun topped with little segments of eggplant and bits of dried squid and cured duck, the whole works wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. The finished product is another beige, bland bore.
“Our rice noodles,” reads the menu “are freshly made by hand daily, using the traditional method and only with organic grains, all-natural ingredients and spring water.” Noble sentiments, but when it comes to food, tradition — no matter how healthful, artisanal or time-honored — must always defer to taste.