Last Tuesday night at China Village (1335 Solano Ave., Albany), on the restaurant's first day back in business since a fire knocked its kitchen out of commission sixteen months ago, the atmosphere was as festive as at a long-awaited family reunion. By 6 o'clock — despite little in the way of advance press — the restaurant was packed. "Congratulations," table after table of longtime regulars were overheard saying to staff. "We're so glad you're back."
Although the beloved Szechuan restaurant was closed for more than a year — and the dining room has gotten a facelift, and a few of the prices have been bumped up by a whisker — mostly things felt the same. For those of us who love the restaurant, that was as we'd hoped it would be.
Which isn't to say that nothing has changed: The dining room does look sleek and modern now — amazing what a fresh coat of paint and a few well-placed decorations (tiny gold and silver carp figurines swimming along the wall) can do. The newly renovated bar area is now exposed to the main dining room; the overall effect is more welcoming and open. And chef-owner John Yao told What the Fork that the kitchen has also been fully upgraded and reconfigured so that the cooks have a little bit more room to operate.
Yao said he's hired back all of his old cooks and his most experienced servers, but given how long it's been, it wasn't a surprise that on opening night the kitchen seemed a touch slower than usual, and the staff — just getting back in the swing of things — struggled to keep up with the rigors of a packed house. No one seemed to mind much.
Once the kitchen gets settled, Yao plans to introduce a number of new items, including an expanded selection of ma la ("numbingly spicy") hot pots and several whole-fish options — "Hot Braised Whole Fish with Wheat Noodles" sounds great — prepared from live fish that customers can select from the tanks in back. He also plans to introduce some "lighter" dishes, like finely diced chicken served with Szechuan-style pickled chili peppers.
For now, Yao said he's serving mostly just his old menu, but inquisitive diners can check out some of the new items on the restaurant's revamped website. The plan is to introduce these dishes gradually over the next few months — not all at once, since he'll probably have to eliminate a few old dishes to make room for the new.
"It depends on the customers, if they are tired of the old dishes," Yao explained.
I, for one, felt little temptation to stray away from the classics during my first time back: the cumin-spiced Village Lamb and the spicy wok-charred cabbage. And how could I resist ordering the West-Style 1,000 Chili Pepper Fish Fillet, a tureen of soup presented at the table covered with — maybe not a thousand, but at least several dozen — whole dried chiles, which infused the broth with all of their fragrance but only a little bit of their heat? After all this time, the first spoonful was just as comforting as I remembered.
The Return of Scream Sorbet?
For the legions of frozen confection lovers still mourning the loss of Scream Sorbet, this past weekend brought welcome news: On Friday and Saturday, Scream held a pop-up sale of pre-packed cartons of sorbet at the new Berkeley location of Bittersweet Cafe (1952 University Ave.). Scream owner Nathan Kurz told What the Fork that he's in talks with the proprietors of the Oakland-based chocolate cafe about the possibility of a long-term collaboration — one that would also extend to Bittersweet's two other locations and would eventually include sorbet sold by the scoop. But for now, this was a one-shot deal. In March, Scream's Telegraph Avenue brick-and-mortar storefront was shut down by the Alameda County Health Department due to a permitting issue.
The new Uptown Oakland location of Umami Burger (2100 Franklin St.), the hugely popular SoCal burger chain with modernist leanings, opened softly on Monday. The menu is similar to what customers will find at the chain's other locations, with the exception of one site-specific signature burger: the Queso Fundido Burger, which is topped with oozy house-made chile con queso and chorizo fundido sauce. For now, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., though the closing time might get tweaked during this soft opening period. ... Also open in Oakland is The Star (3425 Grand Ave.), the new Little Star Pizza offshoot, which specializes, of course, in Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. ... Finally, it's been a busy summer for everyone's favorite gourmet food truck extravaganza, Off the Grid. Fresh off launching a new lunchtime event in Emeryville last week, Off the Grid will debut its new El Cerrito street food market on Wednesday, July 10, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The ten-truck market, Off the Grid's first in Contra Costa County, will be located on Fairmount Avenue, between San Pablo Avenue and Carson Boulevard, every Wednesday.