Occasionally, I'll find an ethnic restaurant that makes me feel like an expatriate in my own country. These are places firmly rooted in another culture, resistant to American attitude, and clearly catering to a different demographic. Zhong Shan Restaurant on Park Avenue is such a place.
It has the feel of somebody else's home away from home. And the most tangible agent of the you're-not-in-Kansas vibe is the flat screen TV. First of all, it seems out of place in a formal dining room. Second, it features Chinese programming: It's obviously intended for customers fluent in the language — even the captioning is in Chinese.
The dining room's overall effect raises my hopes for an exceptional kitchen.
12:12 The host station, with its polished dark wood desk and cabinet and chairs, resembles a small parlor. We pass a collection of aquariums. In the top two, there are live lobsters and crabs. The lower tanks have only water. I have seen fish in them in past visits. On the opposite wall, a nearly room-length mural depicts what I take to be scenes of busy country life.
12:18 Zhong Shan's menu carries the usual Americanized Chinese suspects along with a smattering of less typical choices. Our polite server is ready to take our orders immediately. We choose a couple of starters and ask for more time to pick our entrees.
12:21 We order our entrees, enjoying the hot tea that was brought to our table with glasses of water right after we are seated. The lunch specials menu offers 18 mostly obvious choices served with an egg roll and white or fried rice — all for $6.95. We select our egg-roll-less entrees from the house specialties list and paid considerably more for it.
12:27 Our server brings the crab Rangoon ($5.95). The fried wonton flowers are crunchy and the pockets warm and chewy. The melted cream cheese filling is hot and mildly tangy, the crab elusive and the sweet duck sauce exactly what you'd expect from a plastic packet. A couple minutes later, our steamed dumplings arrive. Their generous, savory filling contrasts nicely with the firm dumplings, which are further aided by a soy dipping sauce.
12:35 My dining companion orders short ribs with ginger and scallion ($16.95). She shies away from ordering a spicy dish because of a past Zhong Shan experience with a fire-breathing entree. The meat in this selection is tender, but most pieces still are fatty and chewy. We both like the trace of ginger in the otherwise rich, beefy sauce that at first seems heavy-handed — more sauce than meat — but compels noshing even after we were full.
I choose the Szechuan Combo ($16.95), a beef and chicken pairing that explodes with hearty black pepper and a pleasant heat that my once-burned friend enjoyed at least as much as I did. The meats and vegetables feel coaxed to tenderness. The broccoli, carrots and generous cuts of zucchini star in the ensemble.
12:59 We take care of the check and exit. Even without the starters, either one of our entrees, with the addition of a couple cups of sweet steamed rice, would have been enough for two. Portions are no problem here. We leave with three carry-out containers. I don't miss the egg rolls, but the final tally, at $48 and change, is pricier than I expected. Afterward, I notice both our orders listed for a dollar less on the carry-out menu.
I consider Zhong Shan an oasis of sorts. It's a lone remnant of the city's once bustling Chinatown, a tasteful redoubt amid downscale dreariness that's made more forlorn because of its proximity to more vigorous facades just a few blocks east, or the dodgy hustle of Lexington Market to the west. On a wider landscape, it serves as a beacon of polite formality in a contemporary dining scene that often seems like a desert of conventional casualness or haute pretension. (Don't get me wrong, I like both of those forms, especially the casual one, but some days it's a relief to be made to feel more cultured than I am.)
Zhong Shan's setting is tastefully ornate, its ambience manages to lean exotic despite the ubiquity of Chinese decor long settled in this country. The restaurant evokes a sense of authenticity lacking in less expensive or inventive places. But because of all that, Zhong Shan provokes expectations of greatness that its kitchen doesn't always deliver.
Dining time: 47 minutes
Where: 323 Park Ave., Baltimore
Lunch hours: 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Lunch specials: $6.95; entrees $8.95-$17.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭Poor: ✭]