Rice Valley | 617.558.7666 | 821 Washington Street, Newton | Open Mon–Thurs, 11:30 AM–10 PM; Fri and Sat, 11:30 AM–11 PM; And Sun, Noon–10 PM | AE, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access
Rice Valley is shiny and large. The promise is no canned vegetables, which is good news — even in the suburbs, where it might mean substituting Euro-American vegetables for the Asian originals, or fresh jicama for canned water chestnuts. Servers are attentive, rolling up Peking duck ($31.95; $18/half duck) and serving bowls of soup tableside with a flourish. Rice Valley has all the modern-health-food features: brown rice ($1.50) and a whole low-fat menu, as well as vegetarian spinach ravioli ($5.95). Chinese-American favorites and dishes from various regions all come out nicely, but nothing is really distinguished, except perhaps the deep-fried items.
My problem with Rice Valley is that, despite its strengths, I couldn’t find anything notably or memorably great. A serviceable but nondescript restaurant is a critic’s nightmare, yet there is certainly a value for serviceable. And for some patrons, good deep-frying is all they need to know.
There were also some problems getting things to the table hot, which is very important with Chinese food. So, for example, while crab Rangoons ($5.95) are not at all traditional, and these had very little crab flavor, the wonton skins were impeccably dry fried and the crisp critters with their soft stuffing were hard to resist. Pan-fried Peking ravioli ($5) had the right gingery-pork filling, but the skins were too thick. A whole generation of suburban youth has grown up on these and enjoys this style, but I can fry spaghetti at home.
“Crispy fried calamari” ($8.95) are certainly very crisp and quite spicy even if you avoid the fried chilies, but I don’t approve of filling out the platter with fried strips of wonton dough, no matter how well the fry cook can make them. Barbecued baby back ribs ($12.95) were classic down to some of the carmine-colored dye, but the plum sauce is now more like apple sauce, and I missed the hot Chinese mustard of old. Shumai ($6.50) were the tight cylinders served in Japanese restaurants, rather than the barrel-shaped stuffed pasta of Chinese dim sum. Canned food is taboo here, but apparently frozen is okay.
Rice Valley has Peking duck, and our server did a terrific job putting together enough rolls for a big table. The pancakes, however, were somewhat dry and cold, and the skin didn’t have the real Peking-duck crackle and savor. Maybe if we had ordered 24 hours ahead, as one did in the old days, we would have been better off?
For flavor, our vegetable platters were the best: the no-cans policy pays off even in something as simple as bok choy with black mushrooms ($10.95). The bok choy were jade-green baby cabbages, arranged in a lovely circle around heaps of reconstituted dried black mushrooms, the whole served in a light soy-based sauce. Sautéed string beans ($8.50) were haricot beans, not the Chinese asparagus beans, but this is one case where the non-Asian vegetable has more flavor. All they needed was plenty of garlic, and this dish is a winner.
General Gau’s chicken ($9.95) again benefits from a good fry cook on the croquettes; the sauce is sweet, not very gingery, and not very peppery, if you watch out for three or four dried chilies. A sizzling seafood platter ($14.95) didn’t sizzle — which is all to the good, since the sizzling show generally overcooks the food by the time it gets to the table. Our mélange of squid, sea scallops, shrimp, broccoli, snow peas, carrot, and jicama was not overdone, and lots of fun to eat.
Beef lo mein ($7.25) wasn’t very interesting, except for some of the same vegetables cut into what the French would call “batons.” Sautéed chicken with mixed vegetables ($9.50) wasn’t so different from the old-school moo goo gai pan, other than the thinner sauce and fresh red bell peppers and broccoli. This isn’t a bad update when you get that powerful nostalgia for the old-time Chinese-restaurant food. White rice (90 cents) and brown rice are sticky and aromatic, and the tea is the earthy pu-erh style weak enough for an outsider to enjoy. There are no desserts, but fortune cookies are offered.
Unfortunately, the ambitions of the restaurant were much higher when they were originally announced. It’s possible that we missed some winners on the overlong menu, but it’s also possible that trying to please everyone means that the chef’s real specialties are submerged.
Certainly the rooms are very nicely redone, with cream-colored walls, red accents and ceiling lights, and wood cut-outs where curtains might be. The old-fashioned Chinese-restaurant pentatonic music is here, too. The blend of old and new makes this a likely spot for multigenerational families and groups. I’d just like a little more verve on either side of the menu divide: the old dishes done with plenty of soy, and the new Hong Kong–seafood menu rushed to the table with panache.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com