(A version of this review was published on Baristanet on Jan. 18)
It was with great interest that I watched as Chia Asian Bistro on Bloomfield Ave took shape and eventually opened late last year, as I had yet to find a satisfactory local Chinese restaurant that hit all the right spots for me. Chia was bang on target with location, being within a few minutes’ walk of bustling Church St and its fine selection of wine, clothing, coffee and candy stores, and the accompanying foot traffic.
The restaurant, with an airy dining room and a separate banquet room for party bookings, is tastefully decorated, with dark cherry wainscotting and generous windows welcoming in large swathes of natural light. Wallpaper in a deep jade, on which a Mandarin poem gracefully repeated itself in silver lettering, was mesmerizing and soothing. In the banquet room, the wallpaper was calligraphed equally fetchingly, this time with repeated motifs of oriental-style kettles. Wide, polished wood planks adorned the floor in a dark stain, tables and sturdy cushioned chairs of walnut wood kept up the earthy theme, and a single, exotic flower in a vase stylishly accented each table.
That the place was attractive and light was key. For me, it makes the difference between a restaurant with tasty Asian food that I will visit when I get the hankering once in many months, and one that instantly pops to mind when someone asks, “Where shall we eat?”
The staff were polite and attentive, without clucking over us every minute, a welcome boon for conversation. My dining companion and I, along with her young son, were pleased to find a lunch prix fixe menu, which made at least one combination of courses easier. Her 6 year old had his eyes on miso soup and fried pork dumplings. The menu was simply laid out; one could have one’s entree or pick of protein, done in a few styles. I found later, the tofu, done with jalapeno and basil, was going to taste pretty much the same as the chicken done the same way.
We munched on some tasty pastry bites as we awaited our food, which wasn’t long, one of several welcome things about having a Chinese meal, and the six year old dug into the Miso Soup, which he declared delicious, its mysterious cloud entrancing him with its magical disappearance and reappearance, even as slivered flecks of scallion stubbornly stayed afloat.
The Fried Pork Dumpling starter, part of a price-fixed lunch trio, was crunchy on the outside, meaty inside. Off the a la carte menu, there were six Vegetable Dumplings, all beautifully steamed and presented. They were piping hot and tender, with tasty chunks of gingered tofu and carrot, and served with a trio of dips including soy sauce, hoi sin sauce, and a translucent sweet chilli dip.
Roast Duck Soft Tacos, served in the style of what some may know as Peking Duck, were served with a mango salsa, julienned cucumber and scallions, and plum sauce. The duck was perfectly roasted, there wasn’t too much skin in sight (which I had expected and wouldn’t have minded), it was moist and not gamey. So far, so good.
But here’s the down side of having food arrive post-haste to the table. One feels the heat, literally and figuratively. The pressure of finishing the previous course which one really wants to linger over and enjoy, and the impatience of large, steaming hot entrees waiting at head height to claim their spot at the table. Fare thee well, dumplings, duck, and all your saucy friends.
Singapore Mai Fun, a noodle entree, was spiced perfectly, with small chunks of tender chicken and a regular crunch of vegetables throughout.
Tofu, with Basil and Jalapeno, was fried and cut into triangles. The tofu was pleasantly crunchy and didn’t fall apart as one ate it. It was served with green and red peppers in a sweet and tangy sauce. The sibling dish of chicken, done in a similar manner, was good, but brought to mind the limitations of future visits due to the lack of taste diversity in the entrees.
Beef, sauteed with Eggplant and Garlic, another way one’s entree can be prepared, was ever so tender, and the eggplant was exquisite, retaining its firmness with just the right amount of give. If you’ve ever sauteed eggplant, you’ll know this is not an easy thing to get down pat. Delicious.
Perhaps you may want to refrain from ordering tea unless you’re prepared to part with $5 for two modest cups of jasmine, instead of the nonstop refills of tea you may have come to expect at other Chinese restaurants. We skipped dessert but the plate of palate-cleansing orange segments which magically appeared was perfect to round off the meal.
All in all, I’d love to go back, and hope that in the interim, the list of entrees gets more creative. The bill came to about $20 a head for the shared dishes (it’s $14 for the price-fixed lunch comprising soup and entree). I’d give the restaurant 3.5 out of 5 among mid-range local Asian restaurants, just for doing better taste- and presentation-wise than some of the competition (not a tough job, really), and for paying thoughtful heed to the aesthetics of the interior.
Chia Asian Bistro
446-450 Bloomfield Ave
Montclair, NJ 07042