A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a reader suggesting I review Gourmet Kingdom. The message began by informing me that "the restaurant is a place that has agod-awful buffet, but if you ask, you'll get the secret Chinese menu." Order from that menu, the reader assured me, and I would discover "a gem of Szechwan cooking right in Carrboro."
Gourmet Kingdom has been open for five years, but previous comments I'd heard about the self-proclaimed "Chinese Super Buffet" hadn't given me any reason to move the restaurant off the back burner of places to visit. But how, I ask you, could a self-respecting restaurant critic resist an invitation to check out a restaurant described as at once"god-awful" and "a gem"?
OK, I'll admit that I went just to check out the "gem" part. Chinese buffets are a dime a dozen, after all, andgod-awful ones wouldn't even fetch that price. But authentic Szechwan fare is indeed as rare in these parts as a precious jewel.
Listing nearly 150 dishes, Gourmet Kingdom's Szechwan menu is loaded with enough of those jewels to fill the coffers of the restaurant's namesake kingdom. English translations are thoughtfully provided, making it easy for the squeamish to avoid the likes of "spicy pig ear" and "pickled red chile with pork intestine." The wait staff is for the most part not sufficiently fluent in English to elaborate on those descriptions, so whether you choose to try, say, "salt and pepper hair tail" depends on your sense of adventure. (If you do, you'll discover that hairtail is an eel-shaped fish that's pretty tasty if you like moderately "fishy" tasting fish, and you don't mind eating around lots of little bones.)
But don't let that scare you away. The menu is laden with dishes that allow you to venture just as far as you like on the wild side. Twice-cooked pork, eggplant in garlic sauce, and lobster with ginger and green onions are all safe, familiar territory. So are Tian Tin flavor dumplings, delicate crescents stuffed with a savory filling of ground pork and served with a sesame-soy dipping sauce. In Yangchow jumbo dumplings, that filling is transformed into ginger- and scallion-spangled spheres nearly as big as tennis balls, served over cellophane noodles.
If your palate doesn't consider cilantro forbidden territory, the fried shredded lamb with cilantro is superb. If it does, green onion fried tea-smoked duck is an alternative that's every bit as rewarding. The star ingredient in kung pao lotus root turns out to be striking lacy wheels of a vegetable whose neutral flavor and crunchy-tender texture are perfect foils for peanuts, whole garlic cloves and an abundance of dried red chiles. Griddle-cooked prawns are a little less fiery, and their spice is balanced by the gentling effects of bean sprouts and bell pepper. For those whose taste buds enjoy the occasional walk across hot coals, the tongue-tingling spark of Szechwan peppercorn in Szechwan spicy dried beef ought to do the trick.
Your server may try to steer you away from the sautéed green chile peppers ("Hot! Hot! Very hot!"). Ignore the warning. Maybe the whole jalapeños were only moderately hot the night I ordered them, and the hottest seeds and membrane were removed along with the stems. Or maybe the heat of the peppers was tempered by the subtly sweet soy-ginger sauce they were simmered in. Whatever the reason, the dish was the unanimous favorite of our party of six.
I did discover a couple of stones in the royal treasure chest that might best be classified as merely semiprecious. Dan dan noodles were surprisingly bland, and the batter was thick and heavy on a whole deep-fried tilapia in a dish called squirrel fish.
But the overwhelming majority of the dishes I sampled lived up to Gourmet Kingdom's advance billing as a gem.
I'm inclined to call the place a diamond in the rough, based on the generic Chinese buffet setting. It's a good idea to round up a party of six to 10 people, which qualifies you for one of the round lazy susan tables in the back room, and allows for a more liberal sampling of the extensive offering.
As it turns out, the Szechwan menu is a relatively recent addition, introduced by new owners who bought the restaurant last September. For all I know, they may have improved that god-awful buffet as well. I'll leave that for another brave soul to explore.