The Way We Were

Former waiter Kevin Chen now presides over Dong Ting's cavernous dining room.
Deron Neblett

The striking, high-ceilinged dining room of Dong Ting has held a special mystery for Houston diners over the years. The mirrored columns and wood trim give the place an upper-class European air. A giant black Chinese screen and hand-painted bamboo on the wallpaper provide the Asian accents. I had heard a lot about this temple of Chinese classicism before I moved to Houston. And on my first visit last spring, I found the strange formality completely apt. I was blown away by the place.

Dong Ting serves an excellent rendition of a dish that my father introduced me to in an elegant Chinese restaurant on the West Coast. "Birds in Jade Nest" is the most stunning appetizer I've ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant: a mixture of minced squab, sautéed with duck liver and mushrooms spooned hot into a chunk of cold iceberg lettuce. My inaugural dinner continued with fresh snow pea shoots, stir-fried quickly with lots of garlic, and Dong Ting's famous spicy squid with garlic and ginger. The flavors were hot and spicy, everything was cooked slightly underdone and crisp, and I was excited to be eating at such a legendary restaurant.

Dong Ting has a long and impressive history. When it first opened at Westheimer and Fondren in 1982, it defined the cutting edge of Asian cooking in Houston. "It was different from everything else," recalls wine broker John Roenigk, who was working as a sales rep for American Beverage at the time. "In 1982, there was no clay pot pork in Houston, spicy squid were a little scary, hot and sour soup was new, and nobody had ever seen dumplings served in red chile oil. At that time, Dong Ting's food was simply the best that money could buy in Houston. I must have eaten there once a week from 1982 to 1983."

Roenigk first met Dong Ting's original owner, San Huang, when the restaurant got into the wine business. "American had a rep named Roscoe Chow who spoke Chinese. Roscoe would go around to the Chinese restaurants and sell them a standard list of Blue Nun, Wan Fu [then the leading wine in Chinese restaurants] and other cheap whites," Roenigk remembers. "San Huang was a wine lover and he didn't want 'that goddamn Blue Nun, Wan Fu wine list,' as he put it. He wanted Robert Mondavi for the house wine."

When San Huang moved Dong Ting from its Westheimer location into the former Italian restaurant space it now occupies, he was making a statement about the status of Chinese restaurants. "When he moved downtown around 1986, it was an upward move," says Roenigk. "He took the successful Chinese bistro he had going and ratcheted it up a notch with more elaborate dining, better service and lots of flair."

Dong Ting reached its zenith in the late 1980s, but then it began to slip. "In the '90s, Dong Ting wandered off course," food critic Alison Cook reported in the Houston Press in 1994. "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." But Cook had hopes for Dong Ting's revival under new ownership. "Now comes new chef/owner De Zhong Ding out of Shanghai, whose clean flavors and penchant for restraint have won me back," she said in that review.

San Huang is out in Seattle now, involved in some sort of Buddhist project, according to current owner Kevin Chen, who had been a waiter here for many years. He can't remember how long the De Zhong Ding era lasted, but it wasn't very long. Chen has had the place a little over two years now. His chefs include several veterans from Chinese restaurants out on Bellaire, he says.

Unfortunately, Dong Ting has slid back into mediocrity under the rotating chef system. I have been taking my out-of-town guests there for a year now, but beyond the squab in lettuce leaves, the snow pea shoots and the squid, I've found little but disappointment.

The "Lion Head" meatballs that everybody used to rave about, a combination of pork and crabmeat cooked in broth in a clay pot, were horrible. The brown tennis-ball-size globs were soggy inside, and they tasted like boiled meat loaf. An order of the famous lamb dumplings was soggy, too. Although they were served in a steamer, a flood of hot water came cascading out at first bite -- a sure sign that the dumplings were boiled, not steamed. The bright clear flavors that Dong Ting was once famous for have all but disappeared.

When a Chinese restaurant goes downhill, generic ingredients, like bamboo shoots and brown sauce, start turning up everywhere. Such was the case with the hot sauce shrimp at Dong Ting when I ordered it for dinner last week. The shrimp were cooked to perfection, but there wasn't any hot sauce on them. Instead, they were buried under a huge pile of scallion greens and bamboo shoots cooked to mushy blandness in a generic-tasting brown sauce.

I selected this dish to serve as a yardstick. In 1994 Cook described it as "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." The version of the dish I was served bears no resemblance to that description.

The crowds have stopped coming to Dong Ting for dinner. There were only two other tables occupied when I stopped by on a recent Thursday night at seven. By the time I left, just before eight, the dining room was empty. "Nobody coming out to eat after 9/11," the waiter explained. "Lots of business at lunchtime, though."

He was right. At noon on the following Monday, Dong Ting was hopping. Chen stood at the front door beaming goodwill. His black hair was standing up as if under the influence of static electricity, and in his black evening wear and white shirt with no tie, he looked like a Chinese lounge singer. I half expected him to sit down at the black grand piano just inside the door.

There were ten tables occupied, and the door to the other dining room (which I didn't even know existed) was opened as well. The mood was upbeat. Laughter echoed around the room. A hostess in a bright red Chinese top led parties of businessmen to their tables. At the one beside me, an oversized bubba with a red face was talking conspiratorially about offshore partnerships with an African gentleman.

The menu at Dong Ting is the same at lunch and dinner, which makes for a pretty expensive lunch (although Chen says he's offering 15 percent off all meals through January). A bowl of the famous hot and sour soup and an order of Hunan-style smoked pork with iced tea ran me close to $16. The soup wasn't terribly hot or sour, but there was a profusion of daylilies and black mushrooms, so I was content with it. The smoked pork dish was only okay.

I first ate Hunan-style Chinese food at a place called Henry's Hunan in San Francisco. Henry (I forget his last name) cured and smoked his own hams. It was the saltiest, smokiest, funkiest ham I have ever tasted. The restaurant's most unforgettable dish was a stir-fried combination of the pungent smoked ham with chunks of chicken, onions and hellishly hot whole red peppers. The top of my head sweats just thinking about that dish.

Dong Ting's smoked pork is nothing like that. The pork is mildly smoked, the dish is mildly seasoned, and the brown sauce has no whole peppers. There are a lot of green peppers in it, though, along with carrots, the ubiquitous bamboo shoots and some poorly chopped onions. (Many chunks of underdone onion have three or four layers still stuck together, so when you bite in, your eyes water.) But the brown sauce has a good bit of fried garlic and some chile paste in it, so it's fairly tasty. My bet is that Kevin Chen has the A-team working lunch, not dinner.

If you love Dong Ting for sentimental reasons, as many people do, I don't want to ruin your experience. But I will recommend that if you haven't been there for a while, you make some adjustments. First of all, go at lunchtime. It's the same menu, anyway, so all you'll be missing is the funereal atmosphere of an utterly dead restaurant. But don't look too closely in the light of day. It's been 15 years since Dong Ting moved in. There are holes in the wallpaper and holes in the mirrored columns. The dining room that once seemed so elegant is getting pretty shabby.

Most important, don't go roaming around the menu looking for something you might have missed in the past. Get the Birds in Jade Nest, the squid and the handful of other dishes Dong Ting is famous for. Enjoying an old favorite restaurant is like getting out the vinyl collection for a little nostalgia session. Forget the B-sides -- stick to the greatest hits.

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