Modest spot filled with Szechwan delights

CorrespondentJuly 23, 2010 

  • 130 Morrisville Square Way, Morrisville

    467-8860

    www.ctwokrestaurant.com

    Cuisine: Chinese, Thai

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: modestly furnished strip mall Asian

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: efficient and eager to please

    Recommended: Szechwan menu, specials

    Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; solid vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

As soon as you're given a menu at C & T Wok, turn immediately past the pages of Chinese-American and Thai fare (the "C" and "T" of the restaurant's name). For now, at least, skip over the authentic Szechwan specialties that are the restaurant's main draw. Flip all the way to the back page, where you'll find just a couple of listings in English among a sea of Chinese pictograms.

These are the specials, and with any luck, the words "wild caught fresh clams" will be one of those listings. For further details, you'll have to ask your server, who will first beam with pleasure at your interest, and then tell you that the clams are available two ways: fried in the Cantonese salt and pepper style, or in a soup for two.

Opt for the latter, and in a few minutes you'll be dipping a ladle into a large bowl, brimming with clams in their shells, swimming in a clear broth whose surface is flecked with the bright flotsam of chopped scallions. The clams are plump and briny-sweet, and the broth is the essence of simplicity, tasting of nothing more than clams and the sea, with just a whisper of ginger.

The Szechwan menu offers plenty of rewards, too. Resist the temptation to order from it, though, until the soup is brought to your table. Food is served in the traditional Chinese manner here, which is to say that dishes are brought to your table as soon as they're ready, with little consideration for appetizer-entree sequence. In the altogether likely event that one or two of the Szechwan dishes arrive first, their bold, often fiery flavors will desensitize your palate to the subtle delights of the soup.

With traditional zing

In the case of dishes containing the famously mouth-numbing Szechwan peppercorn, the effect is literal. Dan dan noodles, for one, will leave your gums in a suitable condition for dental work without further anesthesia. The spicy melange of wheat noodles and ground pork will also put an endorphin-induced smile on your face if you're a serious fan of spicy food. So will sliced lamb stir-fried with cumin, which gets its kick from chiles rather than Szechwan peppercorns, combining with the cumin for a flavor that's startlingly reminiscent of a classic Texas chili.

C & T Wok's meatless rendition of ma po tofu, which serves up cloud-soft cubes of bean curd in a spicy sauce riddled with Chinese black beans and scallions, is a vegetarian chile head's double delight. Same goes for Szechwan-style bamboo tips, tender jade green spears glistening in an oil that's spangled with a confetti of red chiles.

Those not blessed with asbestos palates will find ample rewards, too, in the form of a handful of non-Szechwan dishes smuggled in under the "Traditional Chinese Szechwan" heading. One of these is Cantonese-style roast duck, which is distinguished by the exotic perfume of Chinese five spice blend permeating its mahogany-lacquered skin to the unctuous layers of fat and flesh beneath. Another is a first-rate rendition of salt and pepper shrimp (or salt and pepper fish filet if the idea of consuming shrimp head, shell and all makes you squeamish). Yet another is Chinese broccoli, a tapestry of emerald green leaves and crunchy-tender stems in a savory elixir of soy and oyster sauces.

A working couple

C & T Wok is a modest mom and pop eatery run by Jia Guo, who works in the kitchen alongside veteran Szechwan specialist chef Yuhua Chen, and his wife, Lijuan Dong. Dong's warm smile will be familiar to patrons of 35, another of the handful of Chinese restaurants in the area specializing in authentic Szechwan fare.

The "T" at C & T Wok is serviceable if you happen to be in the area and find yourself craving coconut curry, but it doesn't measure up to what you'll find at many dedicated Thai restaurants. I didn't sample from the Chinese-American offering, but I imagine it's typical takeout fare.

The authentic Szechwan menu, on the other hand - now that's worth a drive. Just be sure to order the soup first

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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