CRISPY BASIL CHICKEN Nicely fried in squid-like strips, and the savor of Asian basilis unique.
As one of Boston’s first Taiwan-style restaurants, Wisteria House had a 10-year run on Newbury Street. It has now moved its operations to Cambridge (east of Inman Square) and to a stand at the Food Exchange at the Super 88 market in Allston. (A third space in Chinatown is apparently under construction.) Newbury Street must have made up its mind: Chinese sneakers and computers, yes; Chinese food, no thanks.
|Wisteria House | 617.868.8166 | 569 Cambridge Street, Cambridge | Open Sun–Thurs, 11 am–9:45 pm; And Fri & Sat, 11 am–10:45 pm | MC, VI | No Liquor | No valet parking | Up three steps from sidewalk level|
Big mistake. While a review of the new Cambridge location gave me the chance to delve a little deeper into the authentic Taiwanese dishes, one of the most impressive things about this kitchen is the attention paid to detail on both the Chinese-American food and the home-style stuff. Even the steamed white rice ($1.25) is unusually delicious here, buttery tasting without the use of butter and as aromatic as Thai rice. We couldn’t find a weak spot in the overly long menu.
To start with the unusual, you might have a Taiwanese snack such as an order of “pig’s ear” ($4.50), thin-sliced strips of cold gelatinous material that manage to hold quite a bit of soy and five-spice taste. “Crispy basil chicken” ($7.50) isn’t very crisp, but it is nicely fried in squid-like strips, and the savor of sautéed Asian basil is unique. Speaking of squid, the “fried calamari ball” ($6.95) is in fact a plateful of ground-squid meatballs, each with an “X” cut into it, and more of that sautéed basil.
Even should some non-adventurous tourist walk in and order egg rolls ($2.90 “for one”; $5.75 “for two”) and barbecued spareribs ($4.75/$8.50), they’ll still think this is an unusually good restaurant. The ribs are classic, as are the egg rolls, though the latter have some subtle seasoning among the cabbage. Both are served with duck sauce and traditional mustard.
What’s the least Asian item on a Chinese-restaurant menu? Arguably crab Rangoons ($3.75/$6.75), which are wonton skins stuffed with cream cheese and a bit of crab, then deep-fried. But Wisteria House folds theirs into “W” shapes for an extra-crisp surface and serves them fresh and warm, without grease. The larger portion has 14 Rangoons, enough to cater a wedding party. You could also order egg-drop soup ($3.25/small; $5.95/large), another dish almost as Chinese as the American flag. We did, and it was delightful, with a mild but real stock and notes of egg white and scallion in every spoonful.
The menu lists Peking raviolis ($6.75) and vegetable raviolis ($5.50), but the ones to seek out are “leek chives raviolis with pork” ($5.50). These are longer than the usual pasties, with lightweight house-made noodle dough and a filling laced with yellow garlic chives, a featured herb in Taiwanese cuisine.
Emboldened by the quality of the appetizers, I went ahead and ordered the most unlikely looking specialty on the menu: “pork blood tofu and intestine” ($11.50). While I can’t recommend this hot pot to everyone, that’s only because it’s very spicy. I actually picked out and devoured the bits of tripe for the taste and texture. I also picked out the bits of pork-blood tofu, since they had neither a strong flavor (like blood sausage) nor as chewy a texture as most tofu. Instead, they were custard-like blocks that held just enough of the sauce to work well. The dish got a lot of its oomph from a mixture of fresh and pickled vegetables. Because of the peppers, I finished it with a lot of rice, but I did finish it, and pretty much all by myself.
Meanwhile, the rest of the table did quite well ordering chicken with shitake mushrooms ($11.95), a hot pot with a rich, dark sauce, carrots, mushrooms, and ginger. It’s a sad commentary that both the menu and our server warned us the chicken had bones. Since when do chickens not have bones? Do kids now think that chicken nuggets grow on trees?
Sautéed Taipei-style green vegetables ($9.95) were bright-green baby bok choy in a simple sauce with a hint of garlic. “Sautéed Chinese watercress with beef in spicy sa cha sauce” ($11.50) is somewhat deceptive, as the beef is only skinny strips and the watercress is actually ong choy, sold elsewhere as water spinach or “hollow stem vegetable.” As a green, it’s more subtle and less buttery than pea tendrils, but it benefits from the hollow stems, which hold onto a little more of the slightly peppery sauce.
Our “sizzling seafood platter” ($14.95) didn’t sizzle, but that’s probably a positive thing, since pouring a delicate seafood stir-fry onto a scorching cast-iron dish makes a swell noise but tends to overcook the seafood — in this case squid, little brown cockle clams, scallops, and shrimp with an assortment of Western vegetables (broccoli, red and green bell peppers, carrots, and such), all in a Cantonese-style white sauce.