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The Same Old Ting

It is my pleasant duty to announce that Dong Ting is back on track. During the '80s, the imaginative Hunan menu and elegant quarters of this midtown establishment made it a benchmark for Chinese food in Houston. But in the '90s, Dong Ting wandered off course: owner San Huang turned his polished attentions to other business ventures, and the restaurant's food sank into the mediocre Hunan/Szechuan mire that entraps too many local Chinese spots. Three years ago, after a particularly dispiriting meal, I swore I would never return.

Now comes new chef/owner De Zhong Ding out of Shanghai, whose clean flavors and penchant for restraint have won me back -- reminding me how much I've missed this room and improving my summer in the bargain. With its shadowy, high-ceilinged calm and its echoes of 1930s Shanghai, Dong Ting has always been a prime Dog Days hideout. There is something ineffably soothing in its handsome wood paneling, cool rice-paper screens and creamy wall coverings, hand-painted with delicate Texas wildflowers and feathery bamboo. From the deeply coffered rafters hangs a massive chandelier, its hundreds of prisms unfolding into an Arctic bloom.

It is the kind of evocative room that Bernardo Bertolucci could love, especially over a chilled, pristine plateful of Dong Ting's chicken-cucumber salad. Lately, that salad tastes better than ever: its summery shreds of cucumber and wisps of chicken laced with flat rice noodles, punctuated with black sesame seeds and tossed with an unusually savory dressing that explodes on the tongue. Even the chilled salad forks offered so ceremoniously seem less an annoying affectation than a talisman against the heat monster rampaging outside.

Subtle iced jasmine tea clinking in tall glasses offers another hedge against the weather. So do the simple, almost minimalist, spicy cold noodles, bouncy strands with just enough chile heat to revive a jaded palate. And Dong Ting's fabled dumplings, still magical, are a purist's summer fare: nested on a bed of cabbage, these steamed, curly-edged half moons boast the chewy-tender texture of real homemade pasta. A meaty, elemental filling makes the lamb version shine; the earthy crunch of black mushroom and cabbage makes the vegetarian dumplings an event. Mix some vinegar with the restaurant's unusually dimensional red-chile paste, and you have an equally eventful sauce.

Between kitchen and dining room pops chef Ding, his round face beaming, his toque flopping as jauntily as an outsize beret. He schmoozes patrons, checks the reservations book, confers with his chic wife, Ann, who runs the front of the house. He produces photo-graphs of fancifully sculpted banquet dishes that delight a table full of older women; he shepherds them on a tour of the outlying smoking and banquet rooms; he gallantly glad-hands them out the door. Then, hitching up his apron, the chef vanishes into the kitchen. At last, somebody is paying attention again, and it shows.

I admit I had my doubts when I first saw chef Ding's new specials list, which is rife with fried items and Hunan/Szechuan cliches. "Just what Houston needs," I groaned. "More General Tso's chicken and orange beef." Perhaps Ding, who has left the rest of Dong Ting's unique menu intact, feels he must offer such chestnuts to broaden the restaurant's appeal. But I'll give him this: although I wish he felt freer to show his Shanghai stuff, samples from his conservative new crop of dishes mollified me.

And more. In their thin, golden, rice-flour crusts, chef Ding's butter-fried salt-and-pepper shrimp transcend their genre: crisp and rich and sweet, they get an exhilarating lift from the tangle of scallion, shredded ginger and jalapeno that escorts them. Are they the best fried shrimp in town? Maybe so.

Even the Dong Ting Fish, a mild, nicely fried fillet in your basic red-orange sauce -- the kind I think of as hot tomato jelly -- was a respectable rendition of an old song. Gingery, garlicky, hot enough, not grotesquely sweet. Fine if you're interested in this sort of semi-candied dish, which at this point in my life I am not. I am, however, interested in the menu's description of Dong Ting Fish. "Looks like a squirrel," claims the tag line improbably. "Those are the funniest four words I've ever seen on a menu," declared my companion, the Lafayette Aesthete. We waited anxiously for this squirrel-shaped wonderment to appear. Our verdict? Looks like a pine cone.

The combination of chef Ding's Shanghai-bred sensibility with the spicy Hunan specialties that remain from Dong Ting's original menu is a happy one. The Shanghai palate values pure, natural flavors and restrained seasoning -- a bias that's clearly at work in Dong Ting's kitchen of late, and which steers its food clear of the goopy excess that afflicts so many Americanized Hunan/Szechuan places. Witness the hot sauce shrimp, a dish that is almost shocking in its simplicity: no sugar, virtually no sauce, just butterflied curls of shrimp, red-chile heat, sharp ginger shards and green, chewy lengths of scallion.

Spicy squid, a dish that had devolved under the old regime, is classy and emphatic these days, the baby ringlets and tentacles flash-wokked to a fine, tender resilience and graced with a thin, garlicky, red-peppered broth. Add rice and you've got a sort of gingered squid gumbo. Only the barest suggestion of sweetness tempers this dish; hallelujah for a Chinese kitchen that uses sugar as a discreet balancing note rather than a dominant flavor. The sauteed string beans, with a fleeting hint of sugar against the mannerly bite of pickled Chinese greens, is another case in point.

Sliced lamb with leeks, an old Dong Ting favorite, remains refreshingly uncomplicated, its meat tender and distinctly lamb-y, its gently oniony leeks adding textural snap, its brick-red chile pods nosing up fiercely on the plate. Cabbage-swathed lion's head meatballs of pork and crab, a Shanghai clay-pot dish, still have a melt-away texture and straightforward broth perfumed with black mushrooms. But why have they shrunk? Their colossal size was always part of their charm.

Dong Ting's modulated version of squab packages, grandly dubbed Birds in Jade Nest, arrives in an edible bowl of brittle fried-rice noodles; whacked apart, this filigreed structure delivers minced squab to wrap inside perfectly trimmed orbs of iceberg lettuce. The duck liver that gives this dish its dusky bottom note stirred childhood memories for my Lafayette friend. "Tastes like Cajun rice dressing!" he said happily.

I was happy, too. In fact, I found precious little to argue with at the new-and-improved Dong Ting. Perhaps the diced trout stir-fried with cilantro, ginger and roasted walnuts could have stood a bit less oil, a bit less salt. It had an interesting, almost smoky quality nonetheless. Only the baby soft-shells bombed: the crabs were as watery and insipid as if they had come from the freezer; a glossy black bean sauce, rambunctious with pepper and ginger, could do nothing to save them. Shanghai and the surrounding lower Yangtze region happen to be noted for their crab dishes; surely this kitchen can do better.

What else do you need to know? That the advertised "best hot and sour soup in town" really is -- refined and splendidly tangy, swimming with dried lily flowers and glassy tree ears. That the ginger cheesecake is better than most Chinese restaurant desserts. That the niceness of the service, along with its formal little flourishes, atones for occasional gaps and language barriers. And that Dong Ting, with most entrees hovering under $10, is a good value when you factor in the rarefied surroundings.

This is a room that seems made for the popping of champagne corks, though when it happens diners peer about as if startled by sniper fire: the three generations of country clubbers, complete with immaculately groomed children; the svelte African-American couple with their teenagers; the geezer with the young woman in a tight sun dress (surely it's his niece). Trailing clouds of worldliness, visitors from Mexico and France pass through on their way to the smoking section. A pair of twentysomethings surveys the room, and their food, and each other with a tentativeness that screams "First Date."

Not quite enough bodies, yet, to fill the place properly in the evenings, but that may change. Lunch already hums with a downtown crowd despite the lack of bargain specials or a reduced-price lunch menu. And as word spreads that Dong Ting's kitchen is really cooking again, one-time regulars are bound to find their way back.

Dong Ting, 611 Stuart, 527-0005.


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