Cafe Society


Opening a new restaurant is always a crash course in diplomacy, but there can't be a much more trying ordeal than telling a diner the valet just smashed his car.

Nonetheless, China Cowboy manager Rebecca Sparks (a veteran of the Aspen Ritz-Carlton) made all the right moves, up until the moment she announced that of course our bill would be taken care of. A nice gesture, I told her, but we couldn't accept: I was in the process of reviewing the place, and the car's owner was our guest. At that pronouncement, Sparks suddenly looked as if she'd found herself on Candid Camera From Hell.

Fortunately, there was little damage to our guest's car (the other vehicle was a different story). Unfortunately, the incident was the most exciting thing to occur during my visits to China Cowboy. The restaurant's food and atmosphere are as lifeless as the pieced-china cowboy that stands inside the door.

That eye-catching sculpture is the exception in a decor dominated by soothing earth tones and fish photos. It's all so tasteful. And inoffensive. In fact, that's the word to describe the entire China Cowboy experience. If chef/owner Billy Lam (who, along with family members, owns the popular Chinese restaurant Panda Cafe and the Vietnamese T-Wa Inn) wanted to come up with a way to inject American flair into Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food without pissing anyone off in the process, he has succeeded.

"I wanted to do things based on Oriental cuisine," Lam says. "But I wanted to be able to use ingredients I can get locally. And I wanted the service to be American style."
So far, he's one for three. The excruciatingly polite, mild-mannered men who actually wait until you've finished your mouthful before interrupting offer the sort of elegant, American-style service you usually find in restaurants where the average entree costs twice what it does at China Cowboy. But even at the prices charged here, you expect more from a kitchen that can call on the cuisine of four countries for its dishes. This East-meets-West, nouvelle Chinese thing has been done before.

And done better.
That was apparent as soon as our Indochina tastings platter ($10.50) arrived. The best items on it were the Vietnamese egg rolls: two crunchy, deep-fried (but greaseless), rice-paper-wrapped logs of minced pork tenderloin and not too much cilantro. Just as simple but a snooze were the platter's two spring rolls, with their typical fillings of shrimp, pork slices, shredded lettuce and mint stuffed inside rice paper and served with an achingly cloying coconut-plum sauce. The third of the tastings, a sesame chicken roll, featured mushy chicken wrapped in seaweed, which was then deep-fried and purportedly laced with a "spicy ginger-mint sauce" that hinted of no spices, no ginger and no mint. We also tried a disappointing order of cua lot ($8.95). The two Vietnamese-style soft-shell crabs had been deep-fried in a batter that tasted like seasoning salt; the accompanying nuoc mam sauce was so mild it seemed like sugar water. Packing much more punch was the hot-and- sour soup ($3 with dinner, $2.50 at lunch): a Vietnamese version dressed up with two tail-on shrimp, sliced black mushrooms and an almost-too-generous heap of bean threads (cellophane noodles made from mung beans, the precursor to bean sprouts). The shrimp broth, swimming with bits of mint and parsley, was pungent with lemongrass and red chile peppers.

The menu frequently uses the word "spicy" to describe dishes that are anything but. For example, China Cowboy beef tenderloin ($14.50), a visually enticing whole pineapple filled with chunks of tenderloin and fruit (the promised snow peas were absent) fell flat on its bland face. It tasted of nothing but beef and pineapple--a surprise, actually, since Lam is known for his ability to successfully marry fruit with practically anything. The spicy garlic sauce mentioned on the menu appeared on the plate as dull brown stuff that did little more than moisten the meal. The China Cowboy oysters ($11.75) had been billed as a pairing of five Trail's End Bay beauties with a "spicy black bean sauce." The concept sounded better than the reality; fermented black beans were all there was to the sauce. The dish wasn't particularly spicy, but it was certainly rich, rich, rich: Five of the fat, fresh oysters were enough. The see chap tai chi ($13.75) was the only entree we sampled that deserved its "spicy" description. A smallish pile of sea scallops had been sauteed with asparagus spears, straw mushrooms and zucchini slivers in a potently peppery reduction that had a demi-glace texture. The ingredients were evenly cooked and just shy of being overpowered by the heady sauce. Lunch was another instance of the bland leading the bland. The grilled lemongrass chicken ($6.25) over cucumber slices and tomato wedges was dry and lacked any hint of lemongrass; the extraneous shell in which this "salad" rested reminded me of dehydrated Indian fry bread. The four veal shortribs ($7.25) were better: skinny slices of beef that had been soaked in a supposedly "spicy," semisweet marinade and then grilled. Both lunches were accompanied by a mound of steamed jasmine rice whose best feature was buried at the bottom--a red-chile-spiked liquid that required prior awareness or a hearty appetite to enjoy. A cup of soup came as an added bonus to the meal; we tried an egg drop with tofu cubes that needed a stronger chicken-stock base, and paid extra for a bowl of that wonderful hot-and- sour.

After a brief appearance on the wine list (which is extensive and mostly Californian), the American influence finally re-emerged in China Cowboy's pastry department. Max Smothers, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, knows how to put out a dessert. The chocolate truffle torte with strawberry sauce ($3.95) was a dainty, flourless chocolate cake that appeared in the right-size portion to avoid being too much of a good thing. The ice creams and sorbets, which came in unique flavors such as watermelon ($2.95), also managed to satisfy a sweet tooth without overloading the stomach. Smothers's crowning achievement, however, was the ginger creme brulee ($3.95) served with an itty-bitty ginger snap. The custard's creaminess was a marvel to behold (and taste); its ginger was well tempered by the caramelized crust.

The exquisite array of desserts only pointed up the rest of the food's dullness. If you're not a fan of watered-down Oriental dining, you'll find China Cowboy a mild ride.

Unless, of course, you're parking the cars.