Is it just me, or does anyone else think that most local Chinese restaurants are dull one-noters?
I rarely go to these mini-palaces. Almost everything tastes the same: Both the buffet and the menu are plentiful with soy sauce, cooking oil and some generic brown sauce that leaves me decidedly uncurious, along with a generic palette of aromatics dominated by onions.
In my experience, the lone exception in Central Kentucky is Panda Cuisine.
The longtime Lexington restaurant, which was known as Panda Garden until it moved to new digs on Nicholasville Road from New Circle Road North last year, recently changed owners. Fortunately, the kitchen seems stable — and I hope it will remain so — because this restaurant might be Lexington's sole peek into the complexity of China's revered gastronomy.
For example, the Sichuan — Panda's regional specialty — dumplings are delicious bathed in hot chili oil ($4.95). And if you view pasta as a starter, slurp the slippery appetizer of Sichuan noodles ($4.95) in the same oil, or cold sesame noodles ($4.95) in a richer sauce. If you begin a meal with something green, the emerald string beans with ginger ($4.95), served at room temperature, are better than almost any salad in town.
But if you allow for eating as an extreme sport, read on.
Hot pepper chicken feet ($4.95), a plate of star anise-laced skin and cartilage, are texturally a challenge but a mysterious and satisfying blend of delicate and spicy flavors, heated up with red chilies and brightened by a scattering of cilantro.
Ignore the fact that you are eating fibrous connective tissue, and the hot spicy beef tendon ($6.95) is merely tender slices of beef mixed with gelatinous squiggles (whose collagen is purported to work a magic similar to glucosamine). Keep some of its scallion and ginger soy sauce around to mix with the perfectly fresh rice included with the entrees.
Sesame chicken ($10.95) is a riff on the sweet-and-sour theme — battered and deep-fried chunks of white meat in a sticky glaze, scattered with sesame seeds. Not really worth the cost, but cooling if you've been upping the heat index with exotic starters.
It's easy to pick out the obvious dark slivers of seeded jalapeños among the red and green bell peppers in the brown tofu with pork ($9.95), although the spicy finish remains.
One perfect creation is the country-style potatoes ($6.95). A pile of shoestring potatoes, cooked just al dente and untouched by oil, is tossed with delicate pickled cabbage and topped with refreshing bean sprouts. Great for vegetarians or carnivores.
I really have only two criticisms of Panda Cuisine.
The first is the occasional heavy hand with salt. For instance, the lightly battered butterfly calamari ($10.95), little fingers of tender squid, was assaulted by sodium, and with the Imperial chicken ($8.95), a salt overdose virtually stunned senseless the accompanying Napa cabbage, snow peas, water chestnuts and mushrooms.
My other wish, although Panda Cuisine is not alone in this, is for better pacing of service. The staff, although friendly and accommodating, seemed to be rushing around, and at one point was cleaning up while customers were still eating — about an hour before closing. Not the stuff of a relaxing meal.
That said, Panda is good, not fancy, dining, and compartmentalizing annoyances isn't that difficult when the food is generally this delicious.
Dinner for four, including beer, wine and tax but not tip, was about $89; for two, with fewer drinks, it was about $28.