I was impressed that the waitstaff at Hong Hua writes orders in Chinese characters. You can't get much more authentic than that. "Fine Chinese Dining" reads the menu, and in many respects, that promise is fulfilled.
The 170-seat space is divided into three rooms. The well-spaced tables are covered with white linen and set with white china. Over our table were two lovely ink drawings, one featuring chrysanthemums. If you like quiet, this is a setting that will please.
There are some unusual dishes on the menu, most notably abalone. I'd like to say we didn't order the abalone because of our concern for this overfished mollusk, which has been proposed for the endangered species list. I remember picking up the shimmering silvery-pastel shells on the beach in Acapulco as a kid, and there are a few on display behind glass in a cabinet in the restaurant’s entryway. But it was actually the price, $50-$70, that made us pass.
Shark's fin soups were also over the top at $12-$48, and the bird's nest soup is ominously listed at "seasonal price." But for $3.95 you can have a lovely bowl of shredded duck and mushrooms in a smoky broth.
Appetizers of salad seafood rolls were crisply fried, and the shredded meat wrapped in bean curd skin was a welcome variation to spring rolls. I tried to discourage my co-diner from ordering spicy squid stuffed with shrimp mousse, for $15, but I was glad that he outmaneuvered me. It turned out to be one of my all-time favorites — the squid was delicate, bright white and so meticulously wrapped around the filling that it looked like a plate of shrimp. Served on a bed of lettuce, the dish was spiced with dried hot peppers. When we mentioned to our server how much we liked this entrée, he said he usually eats it as an appetizer with white wine, which was an appealing suggestion.
On another occasion we ordered a hot pot of mixed seafood and tofu ($16). The silky tofu was lightly browned and served with shrimp, scallops and squid with broccoli and snow peas in a light sauce. It was tasty and balanced, though too similar to the vegetarian entrée of bean curd with seasonal vegetables and mushrooms that we ordered the same day.
Two of the dishes we tried were a bit heavy on filler. My "Phoenix Nest" — a basket of neatly woven noodles — was filled with stir-fried shrimp and chicken but too much bland celery, and the cashew chicken that I brought home for a very fussy eater in the family failed to please because it had way too many bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.
On the other hand, beef tenderloin and black pepper sauce on a hot sizzling plate would benefit from some greenery; it would have been delicious on a bed of spinach.
The menu is printed in English, Chinese and Japanese with tersely worded descriptions that are sometimes amusing. "Delicious cake" is a dessert option that turns out to be a choice of Black Forest or carrot cake. We tried mango pudding, which was light and refreshing.
Shetwai Seto is one of four partners who opened Hong Hua in June 2000. Previously he was involved in running a successful restaurant in Montreal's Chinatown. He has a simple plan for his new venture: "We want to be the best." It's a winner.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.