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Distinctive fare at China Taste gives ample reason to celebrate


: Happy New Year!

I'm not trying to get '92 off to a fresh start (although that might be a good idea). It's just that most holidays deserving of the name involve feasting, and a good foodie takes the time to celebrate them all. Including, of course, Chinese New Year. No crowds or stupid party hats, just lots and lots of Sichuan and Hunan and Cantonese chow, preferably eaten in the company of at least one special "auld acquaintance."

We welcomed the Year of the Monkey at China Taste, which is unassumingly located in a Perry Hall shopping center. As anyone who has eaten at Trattoria Alberto knows, shopping center eateries can be as swankly appointed and as culinarily respectable as more picturesquely situated restaurants; China Taste's comeliness, then, should not have been so surprising. The bold color scheme of crimson and rose, gentled by floral accents, has a richness seldom seen in easygoing neighborhood places. But the red leatherette banquettes and goldfish tanks lend comfy nostalgic notes; in this lush, color-drenched setting, they provide affectionate references to old-timey Chinese restaurant decor.

My big beef with most Chinese places is the sameness of the cuisine. It's easy to order a duck dish and a pork dish, and have them arrive with precisely the same sludgy hoisin-based sauce and the same assortment of quasi-Asian vegetables. Not at China Taste, though, where the sauces are distinctive, and point up the individuality of the main ingredients.

First things first, though. Our appetizers, a peppery hot and sour soup ($1.95) and soft won tons ($4.95) filled with a ground meat mixture and scallions and served with a moderately spicy dipping sauce, were hearty without taking too much of an edge (( off our appetites.

The entrees, though, were smashing. Eggplant with shredded chicken in garlic sauce ($8.95) combined flavorful chicken strips with sensuously soft eggplant, and napped them in a dark, sophisticated sauce that combined the tang of garlic with the eggplant's rich sweetness.

Jumbo shrimp with black bean sauce ($11.95) also offered an elegant mingling of flavors; the salty tang of the beans provided a foil for the more delicate charms of the seafood.

Like many Chinese restaurants with ambitions, China Taste has an inside menu of "exotic Chinese dishes" for adventurers whose palates are already too jaded for Sichuan. But as in practically all of these restaurants, the exotica we fancied was temporarily unavailable. Happily, the regular dishes were prepared and presented with the kind of quality that made this a truly celebratory New Year's meal.

China Taste

Where: Perry Hall Crossing Shopping Center, 8750 Bel Air Road.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.

Features: Chinese cuisine

Non-smoking section? Yes.

Call: (410) 529-9300.


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