Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tengda Asian Bistro

It was a cold and blustery night . . .

Does anything ever go right when you begin a story like that? Fortunately, this tale doesn't end with a rabid werewolf chasing down a fragile waif in the forest, a dreadful accident on a lonely desolate road in the middle of a snowstorm, or a completely horrid meal culminating in a restaurant full of people in the emergency room of the county hospital with food poisoning. In fact, while not exactly the polar opposite, it does involve a restaurant, a group of people and food—sans werewolf.

The Fairfield County dining group that I am a member of had its second meet-up tonight at Tengda Asian Bistro, one of four in a family of Asian restaurants in the CT/NY area. This branch of the family tree is located at the edge of a strip mall in Darien, CT. Don't let the strip mall fool you. For starters, Tengda is a restaurant that is pleasing to the eyes with earth tone hues throughout punctuated with avant-garde lighting that is subtle enough to cast a glow, but not dark enough that you can't see your hand in front of your face (unless you're like me and more often than not need reading glasses to see what's on the menu). The dining room is a spacious, open and comfortable area with cushy booths around the perimeter of the room and stand-alone tables and chairs in the center. Based on appearances alone, Tengda has already set the expectation bar high. But will they deliver?

After taking my seat and going through the familiar regime of introductions, I gave my undivided attention to the drink menu—not in the way that a raging alcoholic would salivate at the mere mention of “bourbon” or “vodka”, but rather in that sanguine way that one looks forward to an enticing libation to take their mind off of the near-freezing temperatures outside. However, I bypassed the martinis, mojitos, sake and other mind-altering drinks for a simple Japanese beer: Sapporo. Okay, at 22 ounces a can, perhaps it is not as simple as I make it out to be. But it does have a very light-bodied taste and finishes on a clean, bubbly note.

Tengda's menu is eclectic in that it is a mix of Japanese, Chinese and Thai. The selection of sushi and sashimi is adequate for a restaurant that can't decide which region of Asia it wants to represent. While I personally don't indulge in sushi, the presentations of the various plates that I saw were beautifully and artfully crafted. The a la carte sushi / sashimi selections ranged from Live Scallop to Sesame Crusted Tuna to Salmon Roe to Fluke to Sea Urchin, plus about 25 other items.

Appetizers comprised a medley of dishes from the sushi bar or from the kitchen. From the kitchen appetizers, I bypassed the Edamame, Thai Chicken Spring Roll, and Chicken Satay and honed in on the Thai Chicken Lettuce Wrap. I've had the pleasure of having this dish at one or two other Asian restaurants and had it settled in my mind that one restaurant in particular had the best chicken lettuce wraps on planet earth. That was, however, until I tasted what Tengda had to offer. I would walk barefoot, through the raging snow, on the coldest day of winter, uphill—both ways—just to experience that dish once again. The combination of flavors was like a party in my mouth. Finely diced chicken with jicama, long beans, bell peppers and roasted pine nuts flavored with a spicy Thai hoisin sauce made this the dish to beat for the evening. In was so tasty, in fact, that bytwo-thirds of the way in I had all but abandoned the lettuce in favor of eating the chicken straight from the bowl.

Another diner at the table selected the Crispy Calamari Salad with roasted garlic and a Thai chili sauce. While I didn't taste this dish myself, she did state that it was tasty.

While looks can be deceiving, the rings of calamari, which sat atop a bed of  mixed greens and red leaf lettuce, didn't appear to be rubber bands disguised as food, and they were fried a beautiful golden brown. The specs of chili were visible in the dressing, which added to the varying color combinations.

The overall menu at Tengda is pleasantly tempting, and I had a difficult time deciding what to have for my entrée. Would it be the Salmon Teriyaki? Or perhaps Chicken with Honey Glazed Walnut? The Red Snapper in Thai Chili Sauce sounded divine, as well as the Wok Glazed Ginger with Scallops. Of course, I could always opt for the Thai Herb Sauce with Chicken or Scallops or even something as simple as Spicy Curry Flavored Singapore Thin Rice Noodle with Chicken. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

My mind was in a tizzy, but only as long as it took me to glance at the specials for the evening. Having seen the Wok Ginger Duck description staring up at me from the alternate menu, I knew my mind was made up. The duck was served on top of a medley of vegetables—green peppers, red peppers, squash and carrots. It had been a while since the succulent flavor of a perfectly cooked duck breast had graced the confines of my mouth, so I was primed and ready. What I wasn't ready for, though, is a-whole-nother story. It was a tossup as to the first flavor to assault my mouth—was it the “I’ve-been-floating-around-the-pond-all-my-life-quack-quack” gamy flavor that permeated the sliced duck breast or the syrupy sweet “They-told-me-I-was-soy-ginger-sauce-but-I-could-swear-I’m-sweet-and-sour-sauce” that was a bit over-the-top? Both flavors caused me to wince ever so slightly. It was right about that time that I was wishing I had kept that glass of water that the waiter put in front of me but which I had given back thirty minutes earlier.

Should I continue eating this? I asked myself. Clearly loathing the thought of wasting my husband's hard earned money of which I was now spending, I winced once more before stabbing another piece of duck with my fork and placing it in my mouth. But wait . . . something was different. The gamy taste was gone. Oh sure, the sweetness of the dish was still there, but this morsel of poultry tasted different. It was juicy. It was tender. It wasn't all wild kingdom on me. It was good. Could it be that that first bite was the exception to the rule? It appeared so. I couldn't detect a single note of gaminess in the remainder of the dish. It had gone from a rather unpleasant aberration that I didn't want to repeat to a duck breast prepared with skill and finesse; too bad the sauce that was far too sweet for its own good brought the dish down a notch on the flavor scale.

There were other hits and misses at our dining table.  I was told the Thai Curry Sauce with Chicken was good, but it was swimming in too much oil. The Spicy Mango Chicken was another dish that didn't quite make the best impression and was said to be too sweet. I guess the chefs have a heavy hand when it comes to sweetening up their meals. However, the Pan Seared Salmon received praise and accolades and was said to be cooked very well. One look at the empty plate next to me was all the proof I needed.

This is proof positive that it is possible—dare I say quite likely—for a restaurant to hit high notes as well as low notes all in the same night. There could be a myriad of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that a restaurant should strive for consistency in its food. Having said that, however, does not mean it would deter me from visiting Tengda again. But wait . . . could the fact that the waiter gave everyone at our table their checks without asking if we wanted an after dinner drink or dessert prevent me from docking on Tengda's doorstep once more? I did find this in bad form, and I'm sure the manager would be surprised to know that the waiter missed out on a great opportunity to add another $10-$15 per person to the tab by asking that one simple question. But no, even that is not enough to keep me away from Tengda. After all, they do have the best chicken lettuce wraps that I've every wrapped my lips around.

Would I recommend Tengda Asian Bistro? Tengda is a likeable bistro that offers a variety of Asian foods. Some plates are winners; some, not so much. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent because, with a little tweaking, every dish could be fabulous. Despite being a restaurant that serves three different styles of Asian fare, I like that there are ample choices from each style of cuisine.

Is Tengda Asian Bistro a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? The prices at Tengda are about average for a nice evening out. While you won’t find $3 glasses of imported wine or “Buy 1 get 1 free” steamed Malaysian rice paper roll specials, a good meal can be had for under $30.00 per person. Soups range from $3.00 - $8.00, salads are $4.00 - $12.00, and the average price of an appetizer from the kitchen is roughly $8.00. And there’s so much to choose from that it wouldn’t be a problem for someone on a budget (The Food Houndette raises her hand quickly) to put together an appetizer/soup/entrée combination for right around $20.00.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Tengda is a beautiful place to dine in. Generally, one doesn’t select a restaurant based on how gorgeous the interior is; it’s the food that counts. But Tengda has an easy-going atmosphere that makes it a comfortable place to be in. There is music filtering into the room, but it is at precisely the level that music should be in a restaurant—just loud enough to be heard, but not nearly loud enough to be overbearing.

25 Old Kings Hwy N., Darien, CT 06820  (203) 656-1688

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