by Luke Tsai
Last 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 a long-awaited family reunion. By 6 o’clock on a Tuesday night — despite there having been no press release or public notice — the restaurant was fairly packed. “Congratulations,” longtime regulars kept saying to the staff, even before they’d been seated. “We’re so glad you’re back.”
Although the beloved Szechuan restaurant had been closed for more than a year — and the dining room has gotten a facelift, and a few of the prices seem to have been bumped up by a whisker — mostly things just felt the same. And, 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 (regal purple and slate gray) and a few well-placed decorations (tiny gold carp figurines swimming along the wall) can do. The bar is brand new and is now exposed to the main dining room, so that the overall effect is more welcoming and open. Chef-owner John Yao told me 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, including one featuring frog meat, 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 front. He also plans to introduce some “lighter” dishes, like finely diced chicken served with Szechuan-style pickled chili peppers.