Taste of China
954 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 745-5872
As far as real-deal Chinese restaurants go, New Haven is lucky enough: Great Wall and Royal Palace are both downtown. But stick around long enough, and you might start to hear rumors of a place in Clinton that's a notch above the rest. That place is Taste of China. Since its opening 13 years ago, the restaurant has won rave reviews and established itself as a destination for authentic Sichuan and Chengdu cuisine. This spring, the Elm City finally got in on the game when New Haven's Taste of China opened its doors.
Inside, the restaurant is elegant dark wood, broad tables, and double doors that block out Chapel Street's noise. The menu, too, is serious business. Compared to the Clinton mainstay, New Haven's Taste of China offers a pared-down and slightly pricier collection of dishes, with an emphasis on Sichuan cooking. Alongside familiar favorites like Ma Po Tofu are pork tripe- and frog leg-based dishes.
The meal begins with Wu Shan Beef, a cold cut of sorts. The meat, cured to a dark brown color and served cold, makes an excellent first course. The marbled beef is tender, not oversalted, and moist enough to sop up the crushed red peppers that are served on the side. The whole experience is like eating a generous portion of prosciutto right from the butcher paper. Next up are Dan Dan Noodles, a Sichuan staple. The sauce here is soupier than I tend to like, but the flavor is on-point, with just the right amount of ground pork. Equal parts of peanut paste and hot chili oil combine to give this dish its flavor.
Mung Bean Jelly, shaped in thin strands, turns out to be a sleeper dish. Doused in rice vinegar, seasoned with sesame and peanut, and topped with chives, the cold plate is the perfect companion to the spicier dishes. The jelly has a consistency somewhere between firm tofu and gelatin.
Finally, there is Chicken with Chili and Sichuan Pepper, hot and self-explanatory. The chicken is diced into small bits and roasted to a smoky tan, delicious if a little dry. There are roughly as many whole chili peppers as bits of chicken in this one, which will make it either inedible or completely satisfying given your taste for spice. This recipe also showcases the Sichuan peppercorn, that distinctive ingredient in South-West Chinese cooking. The peppercorns, with a flavor that combines anise and an indescribable numbing non-taste, line the plate and balance the experience.
There's a lot to explore in New Haven's Taste of China's menu, and our hostess hinted that it will keep changing as ingredients come into season. Based on this sample, I think you'd have to try hard to find a bad meal there. If nothing else, you won't be bored.