ZOUJI DUMPLING HOUSE
188 Glen Cove Ave., Glen Cove, 516-801-4848, zoujidumplinghouse.com
SERVICE: Friendly and brisk
AMBIENCE: Bright and bustling
ESSENTIALS: Open 10:30 to 9:30 every day, handicap ramp available on request, parking lot
It’s not easy serving two masters, but that’s the challenge faced by Long Island’s new crop of Chinese restaurants. There’s the desire, fueled by cultural pride, to introduce the true tastes and textures of China to a suburban audience. There is also the need, fueled by the realities of business, to serve the standard repertoire of wonton soup, General Tso’s chicken and pork fried rice. Zouji Dumpling House, which opened in October, is meeting the challenge.
The location, at the intersection of Glen Cove and Sea Cliff avenues, has been a Chinese restaurant since time immemorial — among the tenants: Gem Stone, Tao’s Peking Duck House, Bamboo Cove, Hsin Hsin Gourmet, Hunan Dragon — but Zouji’s focus on dumplings may give it more staying power than some of its immediate predecessors.
Even the décor leans hard on those little packets of goodness. What used to be a sushi bar has been converted into a dumpling station. Standing in for the sushi chef is a cook who defty rolls out, fills and crimps dumplings. The bar seats have been removed and the counter is now a mix-your-own-dumpling-sauce station, equipped with dispensers of vinegar, soy sauce, chili oil and more.
Don’t get too carried away with the sauces because the best of the dumplings need little more than a drop of soy and / or black vinegar to shine. Zouji’s owner, Hong Wei Pan, is from China’s northeast (her family owns a chain of restaurants there) and the dumplings are not the delicate, translucent-skinned specimens you’ll find on a Cantonese dim sum menu but rather the hearty, stubby ones common in Beijing and points north. You can’t go wrong with anything pork based, such as the classic pork-shrimp-chive or the pleasantly tangy pork with sour cabbage. The kitchen is equally skilled at boiling and pan-frying. Milder fillings, such as shrimp-squash-egg, don’t manage to conquer their wrappers. Soup dumplings (here called steamed pork buns), at least on my visits, were disastrously lumpen and heavy.
Another of Zouji’s strengths is vegetables. The okra, stunningly green, steamed, split and showered with fresh hot peppers and garlic, may convert the most resolutely okra-phobic. The cauliflower here is a variety called Fioretto or Karifurore, pale, sweet and so dainty it looks almost like Queen Anne’s Lace. Stir-fried with dried chili peppers, it comes in a tiny wok resting on a Sterno flame.
If you’re up for something new, please order the “five-colors green bean sheet jelly” from the appetizers lineup. Despite the English name, this is emphatically not a jelly made with green beans, but rather “noodles” cut from a sheet of faintly green mung-bean starch. The texture here is that slippery-chewy one so prized by the Chinese palate, the taste comes from a mélange of shredded pork, matchstick cucumbers, seaweed, carrots and pleasantly grain sesame sauce. Is this the original gluten-free pasta? Certainly it is no one’s substitute fettuccine, possessing a divine spark that zoodles and vegetti can only dream about.
Mapo tofu, a homestyle dish invented in Sichuan but popular all over China, varies with the cook though it always includes fermented bean sauce, chilies and ground meat. I’ve never had a better rendition than this one: the cubes of tofu were almost fluffy in their lightness, the sauce hummed with chili heat and Sichuan peppercorn numbingness, calibrated precisely to please.
My mates and I also enjoyed head-on salt-and-pepper shrimp, the shells thin enough to eat, and a slightly timid cumin lamb. If you have a hankering for the sweetness of more Americanized Chinese, try the appealing shredded pork with garlic, occupying a middle ground between sweet-and-sour pork and something you might find in the Middle Kingdom.
Zouji’s dining room has good bones, but accessories such as a TV and a Nestle-branded ice-cream freezer lend it a slapdash air. Nevertheless the restaurant exhibits a few refinements that elevate it above the norm. Instead of fried noodles, you’ll be offered something far more interesting to nibble on while you peruse the menu, perhaps bean sprouts in chili oil, or boiled peanuts with carrots and celery. Tea is made with loose leaves and is served in lovely porcelain pots. Elegant carved chopsticks come with disposable bamboo tips for maximum hygiene and elegance.
The towns of Nassau's Central Gold Coast have not traditionally been fertile ground for authentic Chinese cuisine. Residents of Glen Cove, Sea Cliff, Glen Head, Locust Valley, Old Brookville and Lattingtown, take note.