Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: Han Dynasty, Exton PA

This blog is mostly about pizza, but occasionally I eat other foods, especially if the establishment is near West Chester PA or Philly's Main Line). I'm no expert on Chinese foods, but I eat it often, cook it a little, and even had two weeks in China to discover the real stuff.

Exton is blessed with a wide variety of restaurants, including a number of Chinese restaurants. Most of them are the familiar Americanized places. Such outposts often have "Happy" or "Lucky" or "Wok" or "Palace" or "Imperial" in the name; the ideal Chinese-American restaurant would be called the "Lucky Happy Imperial Wok Palace." 

Exton has two more Chinese restaurants that offer some reasonably authentic Sichuan cuisine (once, this was spelled "Szechuan" and I'm not sure why that changed). They are quite close geographically, in shopping centers that border on Route 100 South. Z Wei boasts that it has "fine Japanese, Chinese, Thai food and Sushi...something for everyone." We've been there several times. It is a pretty place with mostly Americanized food, but also boasts a short but potent Sichuan menu.

Let's pause to explain "Americanized." Mostly, that means that the fiery flavors are toned way down. It also means that the fish heads are removed, there are no offal offerings, and there is more sweetness in the sauce. The sugar is not just for Americans, however. In China and in the most authentic Chinese restaurants in New York, I experienced a lot of dishes that are swimming in salt and/or sugar.

There are three Han Dynasty locations, with the flagship being in Philly. This was our second visit to the Exton location. On this Tuesday night, it was pretty quiet. The staff was friendly and attentive. We scanned the Sichuan offerings on the menu and selected Dan Dan Noodles, Spicy Crispy Cucumber, Westlake Beef Soup, and Scallion Style Fish.
Westlake Beef Soup

The cucumber dish, and moreso the noodles, were quite spicy. I regret that we dove into both before the soup was served. BARIC (born and raised in China) and I are both quite fond of the gentle flavors of Westlake Beef soup, but it was bland after the fire of Dan Dan Noodles. The beef and cabbage were in a lovely thickened clear broth as expected, but it lacked the spark we've found elsewhere. BARIC ate the leftovers the next day so I never got a chance to try the soup after my tastebuds had recovered from the fire of the chili oil.
Spicy Crispy Cucumber

I enjoyed the cucumber dish, which was little more than cukes (that did indeed stay crispy) flash-sauteed with dried chilis and what tasted to me like Nuoc Mam (fish sauce). Still, it would be smarter to find cucumber dishes that serve to cool the heat of Sichuan offerings, rather than amplify it.

We both really like Dan Dan Noodles, which is thinner-than-spaghetti style noodles in a chili oil sauce with a bit of ground pork. We've had it in the best New York Chinatown restaurants and in China. Recently, I had it at a very authentic Chinese Noodle House in Las Vegas. But this Dan Dan was easily the best I've had. The texture of the noodles was al dente perfection -- dense, chewy, delicate. If not for the heat, I could eat a lot of this dish! The chili oil was hot enough to sing but not so much as to singe.
Scallion Style Fish

Our final dish was fish prepared "scallion style," which meant stir fried in hoisin and oyster sauces with onions and scallions.I enjoyed this salty and sweet dish, and ate it over white rice. We both agreed, however, that this was not an authentic dish -- it was Americanized. While it was tasty and fresh, it was a tad too much like the big servings of mass-produced fare you might find in a $5.99 lunch special or a Chinese buffet.

The restaurant is simple in decor, clean, and well-kept. As noted, service was very good, which is rare in a Chinese restaurant. The fish dish earns a 5.5, the soup about the same, the cucumber dish is a 6, and the Dan Dan Noodles a 10. That dish is perfection. Overall, we'd say 6.5 for Han Dynasty, based on this visit.

I suspect that Han Dynasty has the potential to be great, to be a destination place for Sichuan dining, but they adjust the menu to the expectations of their mostly non-Chinese clientele. I see that (on Wednesdays, I think) they have a $25 tasting menu that brings you 20 dishes! Perhaps that draws a more discriminating crowd and inspires the kitchen to aim higher.

At any rate, Han Dynasty stands above the crowd of ordinary westernized Chinese places in Chester County and we'll certainly return. Right now, we're not ready to say if Han Dynasty or Z Wei is king in Exton.

Han Dynasty on Urbanspoon

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