On Food

The Warm and the Cold

This article appeared in the November 10, 2000, issue of the East Bay Express. Sadly, Jin Ling no longer exists.
Two upscale College Avenue Chinese restaurants, two completely different atmospheres.

JIN LING
2984 College Avenue, Berkeley

SHEN HUA
2914 College Avenue, Berkeley

By Eve Kushner

If you figured that two upscale Chinese restaurants a block apart on College Avenue would be pretty much alike, you couldn’t be more wrong. Both Jin Ling and Shen Hua serve excellent food, but because they showcase different regional cuisines the dishes have markedly distinct styles. And the decor couldn’t be more dissimilar; Jin Ling features walls and ceilings so loaded with doodads that it borders on kitsch, whereas the streamlined look of Shen Hua has an understated elegance. Most immediately striking, however, is the difference in service: Jin Ling’s servers compensate for occasional inconsistency with enthusiasm, friendliness, and charming quirkiness. By contrast, Shen Hua’s grim workers are so precise and robotic that they seem like the Stepford Waiters.

My husband, Arif, and I knew we had arrived somewhere unusual when we stepped into Jin Ling and heard an unexpected question: “Tall tables or short?” We surveyed our choices: the long-legged, bar-style tables and chairs are located under a one-story ceiling while, incongruously enough, a much higher ceiling soars over the short tables.

After we settled into the short seats, I couldn’t take my eyes off the ungraceful transition in ceiling height. The designer seems to have cast all orthogonality aside, creating an odd, triangular protrusion into the space with the higher ceiling. A very tall and clumsy man might impale himself on the sharp vertex. Just as feng shui is supposed to have a calming effect, I grew anxious envisioning the disasters that this most unharmonious design feature could cause.

Foreigner Street in Dali, China
Credit: Peter Brouwer
Foreigner Street in Dali, China, abounds with Japanese, Korean, and Western restaurants.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other visuals to divert my attention. Jin Ling (which owner Ken Leung opened in May) looks nothing like Hai Loon King, the humdrum Chinese restaurant that preceded it. Yellow walls with random blue brushstrokes create a lovely effect, and the occasional sections of faux-brick wall blend in well enough. Small, dangling light fixtures come across as stylish. So far, so good. But the decorator has gone hog-wild in hanging a dizzying assortment of decorations on the walls, including a birdhouse, small dolls, and a wicker tray. Under the thatched roof covering an unheated streetside patio, the walls bear dried grasses, a daisy-chain of wicker plates, strings of garlic, fake chili peppers, and a light fixture with a giant fake butterfly perched on it. Even the metal security gate sports rainbow colors. Still, the overdecoration does create a fun and relaxing ambience, replete with conversation-starters. For this reason alone, it seems like a great place to bring a date, and we did notice a bevy of contented couples.

Of course, they might also have come for the food. Jin Ling’s cuisine hails from the seafood-rich eastern part of China, and the menu includes lots of seafood dishes. Many dishes are unusual, and some have poetic names such as “spicy amber beef” and “coral scallops.” Adventurous types might opt for the “double skin,” “special squirrel fish,” “ostrich with Chinese garlic or mango,” or “seafood in bird’s nest.”

We walked a more conservative route, but our server approved wholeheartedly. “That’s a good one!” he said after each dish we ordered. I took this for a rote reaction, but I thought I’d try asking what wasn’t good on the menu. “Garlic chicken,” he answered just as emphatically. “Isn’t good!”

Actually, I shouldn’t say “our” server, because at least four men brought us things at various times, though not necessarily when we would have wanted them. Two minutes after delivering my tea, they came by to check the level in the pot. Unfortunately, they forgot Arif’s merlot ($6.50) until he asked about it again.

They started us off with a free dish of shredded cabbage in an unpleasant sauce, which we skipped. The crabmeat Rangoon appetizer ($4.95) more than made up for this disappointment, the fried pastry giving way to a wonderful, warm mixture of cream cheese and crab. Arif also enjoyed the flaky green-onion pancake appetizer ($3.25), but I found it somewhat dry and bland. Both of these items and the entrées came on lovely pottery, all with different shapes and colors, including one resembling a big piece of lettuce.

We initially ordered two entrées, but the server encouraged us to drop the accompanying white rice in favor of the special fried rice (which is always available, though it’s not on the menu), and after his enticing description, we agreed. I didn’t realize that in both quantity and price ($6.95) it would amount to another entrée, and I felt a bit annoyed until I took my first bite. Laden with bits of juicy duck-liver sausage and smoky roasted pine nuts, the rice outshone all the other dishes we sampled, and we had to exercise strict discipline to stop picking at it. The sesame chicken served with honeydew balls ($7.95) proved an intriguing combination, but the scallops and shrimp in lemongrass ($10.95) interested me less. Innocuous and unmemorable, it featured a light, tasteless sauce.

A typical street scene in Heshun, China
Credit: Peter Brouwer
A typical street scene in Heshun, China, a prosperous place intent on preserving its authentic architecture.

After we finished, four people came by to see if we wanted anything more. No, we said, only the bill. It didn’t come and didn’t come, and when it finally did arrive, it bore no mention of the merlot. We alerted the server to the error, and while we endured more waiting we sampled the strange, sweet, gelatinous coconut dessert that came with the bill. The amended total came to $47 before the tip. This seemed quite steep to me, but it did include three entrées and wine, after all, and at least we had leftovers to bring home.

Lest you think that we felt turned off by Jin Ling, I hasten to mention that we had a superb follow-up visit. This time we took a patio table because we had brought our beagle. The restaurant accommodated him most graciously; one by one, staff members came out to coo at Crosby, who sat in the middle of the patio accepting compliments. Being a banana fiend, he cozied up to the Europeans at the next table when their glazed banana dessert arrived.

All the food on our own table was flat-out incredible. We started with a small portion of won ton soup ($6.50), which seemed like an inspired combination of three different types of soup: won ton, egg drop, and sizzling rice. Actually, there was no rice in it, but the bowl abounded in chicken, beef, and shrimp, just as a good sizzling-rice soup does. The egg soothed the palate, and the pork inside the won tons woke it back up in the most intriguing way. All in all, the variety of ingredients kept this dish fascinating, and we had to restrain ourselves from eating more than two servings apiece so we’d have room for the rest of the food.

Loaded with diced vegetables, the beef with black bean sauce ($7.95) was tender and delicious. And the Sichuan eggplant ($6.25) pleased me to no end. Tasting faintly of brandy (though there’s none in it), the dish reminded me of the deep-fried eggplant at Kirala. Arif preferred Jin Ling’s eggplant to Kirala’s, because it wasn’t as sweet.

The portions aren’t huge, so we still had room for the glazed banana that had caught Crosby’s attention. The server brought a plate of eight battered blobs resembling doughnut holes, as well as a bowl of ice water. Clasping each banana blob with spoons, he dipped it into the ice water for a few seconds, then placed it on our plates. Because the ice water caramelizes the sugar, the glaze stuck to everything: silverware, plates, and teeth. The banana itself remained warm, but the exterior became crispy and cool. I skipped the immersion with one banana, figuring that it would be warmer through and through. This was true, but the exterior was mushy and the whole concoction tasted too sweet. Counterintuitive though it may be to dunk a warm dessert into ice-cold water, it’s definitely the way to go with this dish.

The service was great this time, if slightly slow around the dessert and bill end of things. All our servers proved attentive, and for some reason the host kept waving and smiling at us through the window. The bill for this sumptuous feast came to only $31 before the tip.

We went to Shen Hua with a double purpose: to see how the experience and food compared to those at Jin Ling and to crack the mystery of Shen Hua’s phenomenal popularity. Although there are three large Chinese restaurants within two blocks, only Shen Hua has crowds gathering near the reception desk and waiting outside. The place opened two years ago, and the lines now seem longer than ever. What has enraptured patrons to this degree?

Maybe it’s the decor. There’s certainly something appealing about the opulent, richly stained wood throughout the two brightly lit dining rooms: in the tabletops and bathroom doors, around the massive windows, on the elegantly curving bar, and in the eye-catching wine rack above it. Distressed mustard walls work nicely, as do the large mirrors tipping forward from them slightly. Large paintings of Ming Dynasty emperors and empresses also add character and interest. Another plus is the spacious, attractive bathrooms, with a bench outside them for those who must wait.

Water buffalo in China.
Credit: Peter Brouwer
Water buffalo in China.

The environment has some definite minuses, though. For one thing, the vast rooms are always cold and drafty because the proprietors leave the front door open. The windows are often open as well, but at least the diners can adjust those. Worse is the steady din—from the open kitchen, from the clatter that servers make as they reset tables at breakneck speed, and from the hordes of patrons shouting to each other in order to be heard. The constant noise bounces off the slate floor and high ceilings, and when children start crying (as happened more than once during our first visit), it can make you long for an Advil.

So the environment is probably not what has charmed crowds, and I doubt that it’s the service either. The servers take orders as fast as possible, with no chitchat. When I couldn’t relocate one dish we had chosen on the lengthy menu, I took up maybe thirty seconds of our waiter’s time, and boy, did he look annoyed by the delay. Sometimes the host literally jogged from table to table taking care of such details as the boxing up of leftovers.

When our food arrived, the servers practically threw it at us. I don’t mean that they were rude, just under the gun, much as a pizza-delivery guy might be. Refilling water glasses seems to be a high priority, but again, time is of the essence. During our visit, one server held a pitcher in each hand, sometimes filling two glasses simultaneously, at another time giving my glass an extra-fast fill-up from both spouts. It felt like a surgical team was at work, especially when two men attended to us at once, one adjusting the chopsticks on the side of my plate and the other refilling the water glass.

This brings me back to the burning question: why do people flock to Shen Hua if the atmosphere leaves all this to be desired? The only possible answer is the fantastic food, and in that arena we weren’t one bit disappointed. The menu is supposedly a blend of Sichuan and Beijing cuisines, which means that several dishes have the trademark Sichuan spiciness and that Shen Hua specializes in noodle, dumpling, and rice dishes. As I survey the menu, I can’t exactly confirm the Beijing part. I see a lot of everything—beef, poultry, lamb, seafood, vegetable dishes, and noodle and rice dishes, as well as appetizers and soups. Fans of Kirin on Solano Avenue will recognize that the menus are essentially identical; in fact, Kirin’s owner is the brother of Shen Hua’s proprietor.

One nice feature is an extensive tea list that appears on the back of the wine list. The teas fall into three categories—green, oolong, and black—with two to four choices per section, along with lyrical explanations about the osmanthus-leaf or jasmine variety, for example. Unfortunately, tea has ceased to be a freebie in most upscale Chinese restaurants. We started with a $3 brew served in such a heavy cast-iron teapot that I had trouble lifting it. The server told us how long to steep it, which did seem awfully considerate.

We began the meal with a small sizzling-rice soup ($6.25), a lovely melange of rice, shrimp, shredded chicken, peas, water chestnuts, white mushrooms, and spinach, each of which retained its flavor and firmness. The chicken broth had plenty of oomph, unlike the dishwatery versions I’ve had elsewhere.

Next we tried Andy’s Chicken ($8.95), which a cherished customer created, according to the menu. This cherished customer must have had a penchant for spices, because he included red chilis and red pepper flakes. A garlicky sweet-and-sour wine sauce cools the dish down a bit, and fermented black beans round out the scene. All in all, the tender meat works wonderfully with the sauce.

We also savored Chinese Black Mushrooms and Beef ($8.95), which featured exquisitely soft and delicious slices of beef and firm black mushroom caps, all of which had been stir-fried. We’re not big mushroom fans, and yet we wouldn’t have missed that aspect for anything.

We polished off all the food, and because the portions were small, I was still a bit hungry. To our dismay, we learned that Shen Hua doesn’t offer a single dessert. I consoled myself with the delightful White Rabbit saltwater taffy served with the bill. I began peeling off the candy’s plasticky coating, which prompted the server to deviate from the protocol for the one and only time. He explained that, as it was rice paper, it was entirely edible. I ate three of the four pieces and promptly felt ill from the sugar overload.

On our next visit, Arif and I began with Shen Hua’s Pan-Pacific Wonton ($5.50 for eight pieces). Like a similar appetizer at Jin Ling, these feature crabmeat, cream cheese, and green onions in a thin, fried pastry. Crunchy on the outside and wonderfully soft inside, they burst with crab flavor.

Shen Hua Beef ($8.95) is much more interesting than it sounds. Marinated in a sweet, garlic-infused sauce, the shavings of flank steak soak up loads of flavor before they’re stir-fried. Although we ordered two dishes with beef, they weren’t at all similar, because the tiny meat cubes almost escaped attention in the Gwai Wer Noodles ($7.95). What captivated us instead—and kept us raving for the rest of the meal—was the somewhat spicy sauce: a blend of tea leaves, tomato sauce, curry powder, ginger, and hot pepper oil, all mixed in with zucchini, onions, and peas. “It’s got to be good,” Arif commented, “because I actually caught you eating zucchini.” He’s right—I’m guilty as charged. Unlike the other dishes at Shen Hua, the noodle offerings come in good-sized portions, so we had quite a bit to take home.

I suppose we’ve solved the mystery. Shen Hua attracts those who want unusually good Chinese food in an upscale environment. But here’s the thing: Jin Ling also offers great food, and the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed—something to keep in mind when you’re surveying your choices in the Elmwood.