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'Secret ingredients' deliver a strong showing at China Bistro

Photo: Photos by Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Photos by Steven Gilmore

Sake-steamed seabass

Photo: , License: N/A

Steamed vegetable dumplings from MJ China Bistro.


M J China Bistro seems to be doing everything it reasonably can not to appear too Chinese. The color scheme is subdued — no reds and blacks, no gold accents. Painted screens have given way to illuminated alabaster slabs and spiky "forests" of stripped bamboo. There's not a paper globe in sight — and certainly not a bobble-pawed porcelain cat. It all seems to be trying a little too hard, but many points for the effort.

The menu doesn't jettison tradition totally — though it hedges its bets by offering a smattering of knee-jerk sushi. But it does take some cautious liberties and even a few almost-edgy chances — and not just by throwing chilies at things. This is all to the good.

For starters, literally and literarily, MJ's hot and sour soup, that ubiquitous (and usually almost gelatinous) lunch-special accompaniment, is a nicely restrained and almost subtly flavored example of the type, and it comes with a shower of add-in wonton strips a la tortilla soup. The side salad, a genre that strikes terror at Asian (especially Japanese) restaurants, consists of fresh, mixed greens, some crispy stix, and a sesame-ginger-accented dressing thoughtfully served on the side. Steamed vegetable dumplings, from an unseen dumpling bar, were delicately flavored and encased in equally delicate wrappers that might have been tinted with green tea — or not. And the MJ rice, one of your options with most dishes, is a pleasant blend that avoids the greasiness of fried and the boredom of steamed (though steamed is often just what's needed for a very saucy dish).

MJ's ban ban noodles may (or may not) be a variation on the fiery Sichuan dan dan classic, and in any case they're not as electrifying. But they are nevertheless very good. Pin this on the "more than fifteen secret ingredients" and the added chicken or not (and we'd like a few more non-secret snow peas), but their success suggests trying the pan-fried noodles next time.

There are more dishes sporting tomato- and wine-based sauces on MJ's menu than one might expect to find; I admit to not having the nerve to try the tomato-braised short ribs, as they seemed to be playing a little too fast and loose with the culture. But I did take a chance with a sake-poached sea bass in white wine sauce. The wine sauce was just a touch too sweet for me, and there must have been a little sautéing involved as well to account for the browning and the trace of oil. But some sake flavor did come through, and the steamed baby bok choy served alongside added just the right touch of near-bitterness.

I'm so tired of "chef's special sauces"— at Asian or any other kind of restaurant, but there's apparently no getting around them. The kitchen puts such a sauce to work in its rendition of the classic orange peel beef, a dish we have all had at one time or another. MJ considers it a signature dish, perhaps because it's "fried three times to reach perfection" (seriously — twice wasn't enough?). Said sauce was of the sweetish sort, and the fresh orange peel that had been tossed into a wok with red chilies (for the fourth cooking?) had become more than a little chewy (dried orange or tangerine peel is often used, however). Still, sweetness aside, the flavors were good, the beef had been crisply fried (and fried and fried again), and both simply steamed broccoli and sliced cucumbers added welcome contrast. Another featured meat dish is the lamb chop with garlic and cumin, presumably cooked only once. In retrospect, it sounds much more promising.

MJ China Bistro

10103 Huebner
(210) 265-5800
mjchinabistro.com

Best Bets sweet and sour soup, steamed vegetable dumplings, ban ban noodles, sake-steamed sea bass

Hours 11am-9:30pm- Sun-Tues;11am-10pm Wed-Sat

Prices $$-$$$

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