Restaurant News & Reviews

Chapel Hill's Red Lotus blooms

'Try the Dongpo pork. It's banging."

This was the young waiter's reply when I asked him for entree suggestions at Red Lotus recently. The enthusiasm of his response -- not to mention his unorthodox wording -- gave me the feeling that we were in for a meal that would be anything but routine. The dining room's minimalist contemporary décor -- highlighted by large black-and-white photographs of steamed buns, bowls of noodles and other Chinese delicacies -- reinforced that feeling. So did the selection of wines, artisanal sakes and draft beers, which was a decided cut above the Chinese restaurant norm.

I should note that we weren't ordering from the regular menu, but from the supplemental bill of authentic Chinese fare which, as a rule, you're only given if you ask for it. I had already sampled from the main menu -- a pan-Asian patchwork of dishes ranging from General Tso's chicken to Thai curry -- not long after the restaurant opened in 2006. I had found the execution competent but not exciting enough to lure me back for a second visit.

That changed a few months ago, when I learned that owner Kevin Zhu had added a separate menu to showcase the cuisine of Shanghai, where he lived and cooked before coming to America. With that addition, Red Lotus became one of only a handful of area restaurants offering an authentic Chinese menu, and to my knowledge the only one focusing on Shanghainese cuisine. The foodie in me was eager to explore that cuisine, which is characterized by the use of alcohol and sugar, and by dishes braised in soy sauce.

Dongpo pork, which features hefty 2-inch slabs of pork belly glazed with a mahogany-colored lacquer of soy, wine, sugar and ginger, is a richly flavorful introduction to the cuisine. Seared until the skin is crispy, then braised until the alternating layers of fat and lean pork are chopsticks-tender, the dish is, as our waiter aptly put it, "banging."

So is another entree listed on the menu as "fried fish slices with wine." Presumably, "fried" means "stir-fried," as the fish isn't battered.

Regardless of the cooking method, the presentation -- bite-size pieces of filet, their ethereally delicate white flesh paired with earthy black mushrooms in a subtly sweet wine sauce -- is a sublime chiaroscuro of flavors and textures. And an artful vegetarian entree presentation of Shanghai bok choy, the diminutive vegetables carefully arranged in an emerald circle around a central hub of stir-fried shiitake caps, is as seductive to the eye as it is to the palate.

The menu occasionally ventures outside Shanghai territory, with similarly successful results. The kitchen gives an excellent accounting of ma po tofu, the spicy Szechuan classic pairing of stir-fried tofu and ground pork. I'm not sure of the provenance of a dish the menu calls "sautéed shredded beef with hot peppers" -- I'm guessing Szechuan as well -- but wherever it comes from, it's a keeper.

There isn't an appetizer listing as such, but if you've got an adventurous palate, a selection of small cold dishes such as salted duck, beef offal in chile sauce, smoked fish (watch for bones) and rice wine-marinated drunken chicken serves the purpose. If you're not feeling so bold, there's always the regular menu. I found the scallion pancakes heavy and greasy, even by the traditional standards for the dish. But Shanghai bun -- sometimes called Shanghai soup bun because each steamed dumpling contains a savory meatball and a bit of broth -- was expertly rendered.

Unfortunately, the dumplings had lost some of their just-steamed charm by the time our waiter brought them to the table in a bamboo steamer. I should point out that this was a different night and a different waiter from the one who had recommended the Dongpo pork. Clearly eager to please, his inexperience nonetheless showed in his inability to keep up with service and in his deer-in-the-headlights look when I asked him for suggestions on the authentic menu. Based on my two recent visits, it appears that service is something of a gamble.

Still, given a menu whose yet-to-be-tasted dishes include pork ribs in soy sauce vinaigrette, roasted tilapia with scallions, and stir-fried pea sprouts, I'm willing to take the risk.

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