A fierce clay warrior stands guard over a grand piano in the foyer of Qin Dynasty restaurant. The statue is a replica of a terra-cotta soldier, like the ones found buried with the first emperor of China. The piano is one of those modern player pianos whose keys move eerily up and down despite the absence of a musician. The tune is "Easy Like Sunday Morning."
As we make our way to the table, I can't help but look up and gape. The restaurant's ceilings are more than 20 feet high. There are more life-size warriors in a chariot drawn by clay horses on top of a gazebo in the dining room. Huge expanses of dark wood and enormous paintings of the Qin dynasty adorn the walls. The curtains look like tapestries, and the carpets have a rust floral pattern. It is a stunningly opulent interior.
"I'm very suspicious," says fellow food writer Paul Galvani as we peruse the expensive menu. White tablecloths, palatial appointments and high entrée prices don't necessarily mean the food lacks authenticity. But the fact that there isn't a single Asian customer in the place is downright frightening.
5115 Buffalo Speedway
713-660-8386. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Szechuan spicy dumplings: $5.50
Szechuan spicy noodles: $5.50
Beijing duck: $5.95
Hunan-style shrimp and scallops: $20
Pork with bamboo shoots: $12
Orange beef: $14
Chicken eggplant clay pot: $12
Hunan beef: $12
We ask the waiter for chopsticks (there is only conventional flatware on the table), and we are given the fancy plastic variety, propped up by cute little white ceramic holders shaped like ducks. Paul and I, along with his wife and daughter, all like our food very spicy, so we go with Szechuan dumplings and Szechuan noodles from the appetizer menu, both of which are preceded in print by a pepper, indicating an extra-hot dish.
The free-form dumplings make us wish we hadn't been in such a rush to get the chopsticks. They are so slippery, I eventually resort to the stabbing technique. Covered in an orange sauce redolent of chile oil and sprinkled with scallions, the slick pork-filled dough packages are a real treat, when you finally get them in your mouth. The slurpy-wet noodles are served cold in what tastes like a zesty Thai peanut sauce.
We also order Beijing duck, which comes to the table on a rolling cart accompanied by a three-man crew who perform the task of rolling it into pancakes with considerable pomp. The duck slices include plenty of crispy skin that is arranged, along with some meat, a generous tar-colored glob of hoisin sauce and some chopped scallions, on two crepes. The texture of the meat and sweetness of the plum-flavored hoisin make for a fine duck taco. But is it really Beijing duck? I'm not sure.
That dish is known for complicated recipes that require hours and hours of drying and marinating and roasting in an oven at various time intervals and at three different temperatures. One preparation method includes the elaborate measure of inflating the duck skin with a bicycle pump. When you go to all that trouble, you tend to bring the whole duck to the table to show it off, even if you're serving only a few slices. I am doubly suspicious of the duck because of another poultry appetizer on the menu.
Minced squab in lettuce leaves is an unusual dish sometimes seen at posh Chinese restaurants. Dong Ting offers a serving for four for $12.95. But most Americans are not big pigeon eaters, so here at Qin Dynasty, that ancient delicacy has been transformed into something more accessible: minced chicken in lettuce leaves. This leads me to believe we are getting the Disney version of classical Chinese. And judging by the crowd, it's easy to understand why the restaurant might want to err on the side of the mainstream.
Our entrées are presented on rectangular platters garnished with whittled vegetable artwork. Served with a sculpted apple, the Hunan-style shrimp and scallops are dark and moist with soy and pan juices. This is the most expensive dish we ordered and the least intriguing. The shredded pork with slender bamboo shoots is decorated with a carrot carved into a rose. The pork is chewy and the bamboo shoots are crisp, creating a few textural thrills, even if the flavors are indistinct.
There are two standout dishes. Orange beef features medallions of black crunchy meat coated with chewy threads of intensely flavored dried orange peel, garlic bits and minced chiles. Each bite is a fireworks show in your mouth. Chicken and eggplant cooked in a clay pot is exquisite, but 180 degrees in the other direction. The flavors of the gooey eggplant and a spicy brown sauce penetrate the coating on the battered and fried chunks of chicken. The melding of textures and flavors rounds off the edges of each ingredient into a subtle and comforting casserole. This is the only dish not served on a platter. It comes to the table in an earthenware crock, sort of like the stuff the clay soldiers are made of.
Six thousand life-size terra-cotta soldiers were buried around the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. (The clay figures took the place of the emperor's living entourage; wives and advisers were buried with previous rulers.) The first emperor of China began his career as a 13-year-old king who took over the state of Qin and then went on a military rampage against neighboring states. While the Qin dynasty was short, it was the beginning of a long string of dynasties that ruled a unified China. Qin, pronounced "chin," is the root of the words China and Chinese.
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According to the lunch menu at Qin Dynasty restaurant, the era was also the time when Confucian and Taoist philosophies came together to inspire a new way of thinking about cooking. The Taoists were China's great botanists, pioneers who studied the nutritive and therapeutic values of foodstuffs, especially those derived from plants. The Confucian philosophy of cuisine, meanwhile, emphasized the harmony of ingredients over the dominance of any one flavor. The two combined philosophies launched what would become the world's most varied cuisine. That's what it says on the lunch menu, anyway.
At lunch, you don't get the plastic chopsticks with the cute little ducks. Instead, you get the wooden kind that come in a paper wrapper and have to be broken apart. There aren't any carved vegetables on fancy platters at lunchtime either. Instead, the food comes on a plate with fried rice and an egg roll. But the lunchtime specials range from $5.95 to $7.95, which is quite a drop from the evening prices. (There is a third set of prices for takeout and delivery.)
The lunch also comes with soup. I go for the hot and sour, which is disappointing. This Chinese soup's most distinctive ingredient is usually golden needles, which are sun-dried daylily buds. But I don't see any in this version. The Hunan beef entrée, however, is excellent. The beef is unbelievably tender, and I find several huge slices of oyster mushroom, along with a smattering of button mushrooms, in the brown sauce. The lunch is a good deal, but it's nowhere near as much fun as dinner.
Qin Dynasty, which has been open for about three months, seems to have established an odd new category of Asian restaurants: Call it Magic Kingdom Chinese. It's a gee-whiz amusement park of a restaurant with some interesting historical touches. And although it is not among our most authentic Chinese eateries, Qin presents classical Chinese cooking in a way that will please the broadest possible audience. And, strange to say, even if the original big-screen spectacular has been slightly reformatted to fit our sets, it's still pretty damn impressive.