Urban Chinese

Restaurant CriticJune 27, 2003 

RALEIGH--In an accent that's still heavy after many years in the United States, Cody Tseng modestly describes himself as just a Chinese country boy turned city man who wants to share with others the food he has enjoyed along the way.

That description doesn't come close to doing justice to Tseng's contribution to the local restaurant scene.

Peking Garden, which he opened in North Raleigh in 1980, was one of the first Chinese buffets in the area. Tseng removed the steam tables in the late 1990s, replacing them with a decor unlike anything previously seen in this area's Chinese restaurants. The new a la carte menu boasted a selection of authentic Chinese dishes that remains one of the area's most extensive. Peking Garden, the revised version, anticipated the current wave of sophisticated Asian restaurants by five years.

With the January opening of Cody's Chinese Bistro, the forward-looking restaurateur is at it again.

"Peking Garden is my country restaurant," he says of the suburban restaurant with the rustic garden decor. "Cody's Chinese Bistro is my city-yuppie restaurant."

That description of the bistro certainly suits the location, in the heart of trendy Glenwood South. In the large, split-level dining room, row upon dramatic row of gold calligraphy on concrete block walls -- painted to look like red tiles -- set an urban contemporary mood, softened by fresh flowers on white tablecloths. In the center of the room, a koi pond fed by a bamboo fountain is a reminder that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy.

The menu is a streamlined version of the Peking Garden offerings ("I kept most of the traditional Chinese dishes, but I left out things like pork tripe and pickled mustard soup because I didn't want to scare the yuppies away," Tseng explains). Presentation is more citified, too, with elaborate plate garnishes of carved carrot dragons.

White gourd (aka winter melon) soup stars ribbons of a melon with a delicately fruity taste and crisp-chewy texture that are vaguely reminiscent of baked apple. Its clear pork broth thrumming with ginger and white pepper, the soup is every bit is good as it is at Peking Garden -- which is very good, indeed. It's a refreshing antidote to a hot summer day, as are lettuce wraps, a roll-your-own affair pairing leaves of iceberg and a savory filling of minced chicken, water chestnuts and black mushrooms.

Scallion pancakes are authentically greasy and addictive, served with a soy dipping sauce. And Chinese eggplant in orange sauce arrives at the table tongue-searingly hot. The sauce -- liberally studded with slivers of caramelized orange zest -- strikes the perfect balance of sweet and savory.

An entree offering of mango chicken, however, errs on the side of sweetness, the grilled breast meat smothered under a cloying, gelatinous sauce. Over the course of two visits, this dish was the only real disappointment I encountered.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of flavor characteristics and overall success, is Szechwan lamb. Starring nuggets of chewy-tender lamb stir-fried with green beans, onions, strips of bell and jalapeno peppers and wok-seared red chiles in a complex sauce that earns its "spicy" rating, this was easily my favorite entree among those I sampled.

Peking duck is respectably rendered, too, though it's a pricey option at $26.95. This is not the elaborately prepared multicourse sequence in which the skin is crisped separately and served before the meat, but the more common abridged version in which the skin is roasted with the duck. The price of this shortcut, not surprisingly, is that some of the skin is not ideally crispy. On the bright side, you don't have to order this Peking duck 24 hours in advance - though you should be prepared to wait a good 20 minutes for preparation.

Oddly, steamed whole red snapper (tilapia is also available) took considerably longer than that on a recent visit. Not that the fish, its sweet flesh unadorned except for a scattering of julienned ginger and scallion, and a simmering pool of the simple broth in which it had steamed, isn't worth the wait. It's just that I'd like to be informed in advance if it's going to take upwards of a half hour to get my entree to the table.

The Glenwood South crowd appears to be taking its time in finding Cody's Chinese Bistro. One Friday evening, our party was one of only two in the restaurant. The crowd was better on a subsequent weekend night, with one dining room just more than half full by the time we left about 7:30. Given Tseng's record for anticipating the market, it could be a trend.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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