Scratch preparation elevates an ambitious menu

CorrespondentNovember 19, 2010 

  • 4361-100 Lassiter at North Hills, Raleigh


    Cuisine: Chinese, Asian fusion


    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary, casual

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: friendly but inconsistent

    Recommended: rum coong soup, crab Rangoon, salt and chile pepper prawns, ho fun, Cantonese chow mein

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio

    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.

Don't let the name - or the location in fashionable North Hills - fool you. Spring Rolls is not the latest trendy newcomer to jump on the bandwagon of restaurants specializing in street food-inspired cuisine.

Sure, the restaurant offers a handful of variations on the spring roll theme: Imperial rolls, for one, which feature minced pork, taro root and noodles encased in rustically thick, shatter-crisp wrappers, and Saigon spring rolls, whose colorful filling of shrimp, basil leaves, lettuce and noodles peek tantalizingly through soft, translucent rice flour skins. But these represent just a fraction of an extensive and varied offering.

Not that you won't be tempted to try. You'll quickly recognize the names of many dishes - names like sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken and Mongolian beef. Just as you're thinking you can file the restaurant under the Chinese-American heading, though, you'll spot those Saigon spring rolls. And grilled salmon with fresh mushrooms, and Yeung Chow fried rice, and - OK, so there's also the occasional venture across cultural borders, and a nod to authentic Cantonese cuisine, and even some contemporary Asian fusion in the mix.

Canadian connection

But wait, there's more. Turn the menu over, and you'll discover a broad selection of noodle dishes, from ho fun to Shanghai-style udon. And what's this? A whole separate menu of vegetarian fare, with nearly three dozen listings ranging from sautéed bok choy to General Tso's soy gluten?

Even dishes with familiar names are apt to surprise. Cantonese chow mein, for one, is a savory kaleidoscope of crispy egg noodles, meats (beef, chicken, shrimp, barbecued pork and, if the chef has had time to make it, house-made Chinese sausage) and vegetables (bok choy, red peppers, snow peas, water chestnuts, mushrooms) that is to the common Chinese-American version as HDTV is to '60s-era black and white.

Turns out the chow mein isn't Chinese-American after all, but Canadian-Chinese. And therein lies the key to unlocking many of the menu's mysteries. Brother-and-sister owners Eddie and Susan Tu hail from Toronto, where they owned a restaurant specializing in authentic Cantonese cuisine. According to Eddie Tu, even Westernized fare is more authentic in Canada than in the States, thanks to a large and well-established Chinese population.

More authentic or not, the food at Spring Rolls is decidedly better than the Chinese-American norm. In large measure, that's because Alex Tran - a chef with nearly three decades of experience who followed the Tus from Toronto - clearly values fresh ingredients and scratch preparation.

The snow peas and peppers in the chow mein are still bright and crunchy, as are the thin slices of jalapeño that add sparkle to the chef's contemporary rendition of salt and chile pepper prawns. Same goes for the scallions that punctuate a plate of ho fun noodles and lean, tender beef in an umami-rich sauce. Julienne mangoes, ripe but still firm, are paired with jicama and cucumbers and topped with a sprinkle of crushed peanuts for a salad that's as simple as it is refreshing.

Fresh and light

For his Thai-inspired rum coong soup, the chef starts with fresh tomatoes to make a tomato broth, then transforms it into a vibrant, spice-fragrant elixir reminiscent of tom yum. Even crab Rangoon, that pedestrian staple of Chinese-American menus, is elevated by exceptionally light, crisp wrappers pinched by hand around a filling that actually tastes of crabmeat.

Given such an ambitiously varied menu, even a chef with Tran's experience is bound to go amiss on occasion. All the key components are present in his pad thai, but devotees of the dish are apt to find its flavor too restrained. Other miscues - forgetting to dress an otherwise fine Chinese chicken salad, for instance, or Saigon spring rolls so loosely wrapped that they fall apart when you pick them up - are likely signs of a hurried or distracted kitchen.

Still, to borrow a metaphor from our neighbors to the north, most of the kitchen's shots on goal land in the back of the net. The dining room decor scores, too, with a combination of clean lines and warm, rich colors that, like the menu, is at once comforting and contemporary. Friendly but inconsistent service stops Spring Rolls short of a hat-trick. But all in all, I'd say it's a solid score for the Canadian team, eh?

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