April 29, 2004  (STAR) By Therese Jamora-Garceau  - Different" is not a word that often comes to mind when talking about Chinese restaurants. Granted, we have many excellent Chinese eateries in Metro Manila, but you pretty much know what to expect at each one: Round tables with a lazy Susan, red as a design motif and lauriat set menus that may or may not feature Peking duck served three ways.

So, I was excited to try China Star, a new restaurant on the ground level of The Podium in Ortigas Center. I heard from a food enthusiast that the food was delicious yet different. For one, their buchi was filled with egg custard instead of the usual black monggo, and their tea wasn’t the traditional jasmine but an actual blended drink like a frappé.

We stopped by for lunch one hot summer day a few minutes before the clock struck noon, and it’s a good thing we did, because within 20 minutes the place was packed – some of the office crowd had to wait outside or find a table at one of the pricier establishments nearby. Not bad for a restaurant barely three months old, with a seating capacity of 100.

Armed with a menu of both hearty and lighter fare, we opted to try the dim sum first, leaving room for a few main courses and, of course, dessert. Both the steamed dumplings and the buns were exceptional. You get three large pieces per basket (P68) and watch out, because you can get full really fast. A must-try for wan soy fans are the delectable spinach dumplings, while purists will love China Star’s take on steamed pork siu mai and beef balls. Other must-tries are the chicken bun with Japanese mushroom, pan-fried radish cake and the barbecued pork pastry, a flaky pillow encasing a hot savory filling sprinkled with sesame seeds.

We would definitely go back so that friends and family could try the menu’s piéce de résistance, not Peking duck, but Taiwanese marinated pork in a beggar pot or humba (P328), a melt-in-your-mouth slab of meat that four people can share, topped with its own glistening fat and crispy skin. The meat can be eaten in soft white buns or with rice, depending on your preference. So popular is this dish that one of China Star’s owners recalls the time when a customer ordered 17 orders of humba for a birthday celebration in one of the restaurant’s function rooms.

For seafood lovers, equally good are the braised mud crab with vermicelli in pot (P398), finger lickin’ good and bursting with fresh sweetness, the fried prawns in salt and pepper (P228) and the pan-fried codfish flavored in spicy garlic (P198), a bestseller that resembles breaded fish tempura but comes with a dipping sauce with plenty of fresh chilies.

To wash it down are summer coolers, like fresh buko juice served straight from the shell (P50) and honey citron tea, a cold slushy beverage blended with orange juice and zesty orange peel (P70).

Desserts are familiar but with a few twists here and there, like the buchi, which you can have two ways: With black monggo or with egg custard (for a change, we loved the latter), a unique mango cream with grains of pomelo, a light and refreshing confection perfect for summer; black gulaman with fruit cocktail served in milk tea instead of syrup and Chinese dessert staples, like almond jelly with lychee, chilled mango with sago and, for kids, a fresh mango pudding (all P48) shaped like Hello Kitty.

Behind all this innovation are the four partners of China Star Restaurant, Inc. – who guard their anonymity fiercely and also own franchises of Banana Leaf Curry House, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Red Box Karaoke – and Mr. Yu, their Hong Kong chef. Formerly of the higher-end Marina Restaurant on Wilson St. in Greenhills, Yu created the menu with the partner most experienced in the food business (whose family has owned restaurants like South Villa and Han Court) and understandably, keeps all his most coveted recipes secret.

The result is a borderless Chinese cuisine that pays homage to many regions, and a new breed of Chinese restaurant that’s affordable and caters not just to families but also to business people in a hurry. Service is fast and friendly, and the décor is modern and even slightly industrial without being cold. The warmth of the wooden booths, the use of the colors pink and blue and the feeling of space created by numerous mirrors is about as far away from typical Chinese décor as you can get.

Weekday lunches are usually bustling, so go during dinner or merienda time instead, when the atmosphere is calmer. We’re already planning our next meal there, when we can try some of their noodle dishes. Alas, stomach space was unavailable this time around.

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China Star is at the ground floor of The Podium in Ortigas Center. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. For inquiries and reservations, call 914-9988.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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