Traditional Sichuan cuisine Draws adventurous diners in Pleasanton.
Our server’s face paled when I ordered the steamed lamb. The only other time a group of Americans ordered it, she said, they sent it back.
But my tablemates and I were resolved. After all, I had thoroughly enjoyed fish mint salad and Chengdu diced rabbit on a previous visit.
Two weeks into China Lounge’s very soft opening in Pleasanton’s Rose Pavilion Shopping Center, the $1.2 million restaurant was doing a brisk business with the local Chinese community. But owner Allen Shi saw fewer than 10 tables of American diners—a surprise because Shi understands the American palate.
Shi—whose hometown of Chong-qing, China, is the source of the steamed lamb, his favorite dish on the menu—took a position at Panda Express after earning his management degree at Cal State East Bay. He went on to open Sichuan Fortune House in Pleasant Hill and YiPing in San Ramon.
But for China Lounge, Shi and his silent partner brought in master chef Jian Li directly from Precious, a luxury restaurant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. Li’s classic and spicy Sichuan cuisine—as different from Cantonese as classic French is from California cuisine—is rare in the Bay Area.
“This is the real deal,” he says.
You can still order kung pao chicken: Just expect notes of citrus, numbing hits of Sichuan peppercorn, wok-scalded peanuts, and a dark, smooth sauce.
The contemporary decor, with Ming dynasty strokes, is equally bold. The bar’s back wall is an illuminated abstract Chinese landscape, with more than 30 panels that shift color with the touch of an iPad. Large parties can dine at a stately communal table or in a semiprivate room defined by a stunning circular entryway. And the main dining room’s perimeter tables are set on raised platforms, cloaked in drapery, and separated by elaborately carved screens.
But what defines the atmosphere is the stylish, exceptionally clean, and expansive exhibition kitchen. It is worthy of chef Li’s deliciously complex cuisine, with its remarkably varied textures.
In our bang bang chicken starter, ribbons of chilled breast glistened in fragrant chile oil. Wonton-style soup was a medley of crisped pork belly, clear broth, and chewy emerald greens. Lightly spiced, yard-long translucent noodles made from sweet potato were meant to be slurped, their springy texture punctuated by an occasional fried soy nut.
And the lamb was amazing: a loosely bound round “loaf” of minced shank meat spiked with powerfully floral spice.
Yet even this dish could be called ordinary compared to Li’s chicken tofu soup. It does not contain tofu—the chicken is transformed to look like tofu, as light and white as panna cotta. The dish’s flavor comes from the brilliant stock in which the chicken “tofu” rests.
The main reason Li is able to offer such intricate dishes—aside from his talent, of course—is that he keeps his menu tight, a third of the size of standard Chinese menus. There are still plenty of options for the uninitiated, although it would be a shame to leave China Lounge without a taste of true Sichuan.
“I hope they will order one or two traditional dishes,” says Shi. “You have to try the food. Everything else is just talk.”
China Lounge has a full bar, draft beer, an extensive wine program, and a bar food menu available until midnight to draw in young professionals. It’s another example of Shi’s smart vision for his bold restaurant. The prices are higher than your average Chinese restaurant but by no means outrageous: Our seven dishes came in just over $100.
Shi suggests asking the waiters for advice on ordering.
“They’re waiting to share their know-ledge,” he says. “We really want people to have a good time. It’s not just about the food. I want to introduce the culture.”
Contact: 4220 Rosewood Dr., Pleasanton, (925) 227-1312, chinalounge.us. Lunch and dinner daily.