, February 3, 2005 (STAR) By Joy Angelica T. Subido  -  New Vintage Chinese Cuisine" was how China Star restaurant’s dishes were described, and I must admit to being intrigued and a bit disturbed. Chinese cuisine has long been an essential part of the Filipino’s experience of eating out. In my case, it transcends that and has evolved into something a bit more: Comfort food. The concept of familiar Chinese flavors being corrupted by alien additions as, say, Becherovka, the bitter herb schnapps served at the Karlsbad spa in the Czech Republic, was definitely disturbing. I had to see what this was all about.

While waiting for the China Star restaurant doors to open in Market! Market! at The Fort, young men with painted faces and dressed in black outfits darted about. Certainly, this was not going to be the usual Chinese restaurant opening. Wasn’t it customary to wear red for luck? Was I going to witness the dawn of Chinese nouvelle cuisine? Shortened cooking times were acceptable, but to detract from classic flavors by adding innovative ingredients was tantamount to vandalism. Horrors!

Then, the restaurant doors opened and I saw red – red curtains, that is, and a young woman dressed in a traditional cheongsam. Ah, this is more like it. Guests were ushered in through a maze of curtains where a fortune teller using dice, a Buddha (in front of whom one was asked to make a wish and light incense sticks), and a calligrapher who spelled out your name in Chinese characters, waited. Then onwards to the upper floor where lunch was to be served.

While waiting for the rest of the group to go through the maze, a Chinese monk was on hand to tell fortunes. I am really not an advocate of fortune-telling, but since no one seemed to want to go first, I did so. Consulting his book, the man said that I’m supposed to be a Fire Cat. This being the Year of the Rooster, this Chinese year was not auspicious for me. Hmmm, did this mean that Chinese nouvelle cuisine was on the agenda after all?

Back at my seat, I was able to take a good look at the restaurant interiors: Efficient and functional, a far cry from the interior designer’s chinoiserie – cluttered nightmare that is the standard look of a Chinese restaurant. Later, I was to learn that the simple, no-nonsense, less-is-more design was by top architect Gil Coscolluela. It was a modern look that included subdued colors, Philippe Starck-inspired leather back chairs, black-topped tables, glass-panelled walls, and sleek lines. I appreciated that. A visual overload, after all, tends to distract you from the quality of the food.

All the guests were seated and a short program featuring the young men with painted faces commenced. They were supposed to be dragons, and we figured that their role was to introduced some "dragons" in the China Star menu, such as wanton and beef brisket noodle soup (a Beijing favorite, since it helps keep one warm in those chilly northern climes), Taiwanese marinated pork in beggar pot (sweet, tender slices of meat typical of Suzhou cuisine), mapo tofu (a combination of tofu and meat in a spicy hot sauce originating from Sichuan province), sautéed prawn dressed in salted egg yolk (a Cantonese original with a Shanghai twist), braised bean curd with crab meat (from the Hangzhou that typifies the regional cuisine’s reputation for freshness smoothness and tenderness), curry baked chicken rice ("a marriage between Chinese and Indian culinary influences," which is a Hong Kong specialty), and several others.

Waiting for the buffet queue to shorten, I was able to exchange a few words with

Eugene Tan, vice-president of the company behind China Star. From him, I learned that other China Star restaurants are located at the Alabang Town Center and The Podium. The Market! Market! location is the third outlet, an astute move for the young Ateneo-educated entrepreneur and his partners, considering the continuous upsurge of development in The Fort.

To ensure constant good quality of food, the group maintains a central kitchen that supplies all outlets. Hong Kong-born chef Yu Siu Keung has been designated to oversee kitchen operations. Chef recommendations in the menu include barbecued pork pastry (dim sum at P60 per serving), fried salad seafood roll (P168), pan-fried codfish flavored in spicy garlic (P298), sautéed prawn dressed in salted egg yolk (P238), marinated octopus and pork Shanghai (P198), pork chop with tomato sauce baked rice (P148), and others, all very reasonably priced. Scanning through the menu, I notice that the least-priced items cost P50 (Shanghai xiao long pao, steamed chicken feet with taosi sauce, and steamed pork ribs with black pepper in the dim sum list). The costliest item is crispy suckling pig at P998 per half serving. Very reasonable.

But, like my dad used to say, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." And, as I sampled the food, I was relieved to note that the flavors of familiar Chinese dishes were unchanged. Tan seems to concur with my ideas on keeping the flavors of traditional Chinese cuisine pure and intact. He says, "Filipinos are ready to taste what China really has on its plate. We are here to share old kitchen favorites that our ancestors prepared centuries ago. These dishes manage to take on a whole new appeal while retaining their timeless charm." I realized that "new" mainly referred to the "look" of the restaurant, but vintage Chinese cuisine was here to stay.

China Star is worth visiting again.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved