I’ve followed this restaurant for a long time, from its early years as Panda Garden on North New Circle, where the stunning weekend buffet offered an array of food rarely seen in public places in Lexington and English was a very distant second language among diners, to the slightly more upscale digs it now occupies under the name Panda Cuisine on Nicholasville Road.
It seemed that, with Chinese New Year upon us in a few weeks (Feb. 8) this might be a good time to revisit Panda.
The results were more mixed than I had expected, or experienced in other recent visits. But I can say still that when Panda Cuisine is good, it is very, very good.
Recent samplings included the outstanding sesame cold noodles, a dish offered as an appetizer for $4.95. Cold though they are, these noodles — cloaked in a sauce that is an inspired mixture of a distinct, nutty sesame taste, the tang and salt of soy sauce, and a touch of heat and spice with chili and garlic with scallions to add a small but wonderful fresh note — are a wonderful comfort food. Most Chinese restaurants have some version of this dish, but it’s not every kitchen that achieves the balance that makes you want to come back for more, and more. These noodles are a must-order for anyone venturing to Panda Cuisine.
Equally wonderful is another dish I almost always order there: the garlic eggplant main course ($11.95). I’m a nut for vegetables in general and eggplant in particular, so this almost stewlike dish of chunks of tender eggplant (a long, thin Asian or Italian variety, I’m sure) cooked in a spicy, garlicky sauce with dark, woody mushrooms calls to me. On a recent visit it was just great. The eggplant was almost creamy but distinct and flavorful, complemented but never overwhelmed by the sauce. Served over white rice, there was neither a drop of the sauce nor a grain of rice left on our plates.
Another good and garlicky vegetarian dish was garlic green beans ($10.95), although it wasn’t as exciting as the noodles or the eggplant. The beans are almost roasted in garlic and oil, achieving a crinkly surface and an intense flavor. When this dish is just right it is great, but on this visit the beans themselves didn’t have the flavor or texture to make it a standout. Perhaps it’s just not a great idea to order green beans in January in Kentucky?
In an effort to expand my horizons, and hopefully my palate, we tried a few new dishes. Brown tofu with bean sprouts ($9.95) is a good choice for a tofu lover who shies away from strong, spicy flavors. At least the second part is not me. The tofu was bland, which would be OK if it were serving largely as a vehicle for a more distinct counterpart, as happens when it’s served with the hot kung pao sauce and peanuts. But in this dish, it’s stir-fried with bean sprouts in sesame oil, and neither offered enough interest to raise the tofu’s flavor profile.
Much more successful was Chengdu shrimp ($15.95), whole shrimp cooked quickly with a fairly simple flavor palate of ginger, garlic and scallions with, I think, some chili sauce and sesame oil. Food websites describe this style as dry braised, and that’s a pretty descriptive term for the delicious, almost crisp shrimp we gobbled up.
I was determined to try one of the hot pots, a steaming, stewlike mixture that cooks at the table over a burner, something I’d never had there before. I settled on jade beef ($12.95) and wound up with the only big disappointment. The menu describes it as tofu, beef and Sichuan soybeans stewed until tender in a hot pot. But what wound up on our plates was some tough beef and almost flavorless tofu. I never quite saw the soybeans, but the real problem with the dish was that everything was cooking not in a complex broth but a heavy, spicy oil that was unappetizing.
We also tried the fried pork dumplings as an appetizer, but I had the distinct impression they might have been made somewhere far away and frozen before getting a turn in the fryer at Panda and reaching my plate. The dough was a little tough and the filling both bland and so compact it almost took a knife to cut it.
It’s a little hard to know just where to start when faced with Panda Cuisine’s extensive menu. For those who haven’t paid Panda a visit, the buffet at lunchtime on weekends might be a good starting point, a place to sample a lot of the offerings and find what suits. Even more enticing for those who want to expand their culinary experience and celebrate the Chinese New Year is the special evening buffet Panda Cuisine will offer that Monday, Feb. 8.
Where: Malabu Heights Plaza, 2358 Nicholasville Road
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Notes: All major credit cards, handicap accessible, abundant vegetarian options