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Albert's puts the thrill back in Chinese

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[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
Maitre d’ Albert Wong proudly presents the Peking duck at Albert’s Asian Bistro in Tampa.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


At long last, a restaurant worthy of San Francisco's Chinatown has opened in Tampa. Enjoy the real thing, and be adventurous - the rewards are memorable.

Can't remember the last time I left a restaurant as happy as after my first meal at Albert's Asian Bistro.

New restaurants we have aplenty, but good Chinese is mighty rare hereabouts, and Albert's promises to be California Chinatown good and, if we're lucky, great. That was my judgment even before I stopped in for dim sum, the fabled dumplings of Chinese breakfast and lunch, which are not just a weekend treat but an everyday bit of heart.

My first taste here, a dinner appetizer, convinced me. An oyster the size of my fist -- "From Canada. Very, very good" maitre d' Albert Wong touted -- was steamed on the half shell and crowned with black bean sauce and Chinese herbs. It was the king of oysters.

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Albert’s Asian Bistro serves an amazing variety of food. Shown here, clockwise from front, is the sauteed flounder with stir-fried vegetables, sauteed prawns with cream puffs, baked oysters in curry sauce, fresh striped bass on a heater and a BBQ combo platter.

If this is good news for Western fans of Chinese food, it's more welcome for Tampa Bay's Asian community. They are less surprised, for this restaurant springs from the Oceanic Oriental Foods, a vast and venerable supermarket that occupies half a block in downtown Tampa, packed with bitter melon, fresh lychees, wing beans, a butcher shop and fish counter, videos and restaurant supplies. To these ingredients, owners Tak and Chan Choy added a new building on Tampa's Restaurant Row and recruited a full crew of chefs and Wong from San Francisco.

Maybe some Yankee emigres still search for the thrill Chinese gave them decades ago, but I had held out little hope that Chinese food could compete in a society that loves tuna tataki, phad Thai, kim chee, lemongrass chicken and fiery sambals. General Tsao is not in command anywhere but the buffet table.

That's not a local complaint. Other than dim sum, I've found no thrill, only nostalgia, in New York's Chinatown, whether guided by Asians or New Yorkers. If great Chinese food is there (let alone in the rest of Manhattan), it's not as common as the brag has it. The only bites of Chinese that made me swoon in 20 years have been on the West Coast, where the breeze from Hong Kong is strongest.

Any more, I'm excited when a Chinese restaurant has green vegetables that are green.

At Albert's, not only is broccoli electric, there's a sparkling open kitchen with a vast crew, superb duck (Peking duck on demand, without 24-hour notice), an aquarium for live crabs, lobsters and eels, and even a taste of claypot Hakka cooking.

There is succulent Malay satay, minty papaya salad from Thailand, Singapore noodles and enough non-Chinese dishes to qualify technically as Pan-Asian or Pacific Rim. The triumph is Chinese food at its best, Canton, Szechwan, Mandarin and Hakka, from rustic to top-dollar XO sauce, undiluted by fusion.

Sushi bar seating offers an up-close view of the 10-wok kitchen and a fashionable openness especially welcome in a Chinese restaurant. Staffing is modern in size and intent: It's a big crew, few of whom understand both English and the menu, but all under watchful eyes of a maitre d' who has full command of every detail at your table.

It is what is on the table that restores the good name of Chinese food, and that new level of quality may baffle a sweet-and-sour crowd. "Don't you have chicken and vegetables, something that's not too spicy?" said one diner unhelped by a 12-page menu handily organized and brightly illustrated.

Sure, but that's missing the point. You needn't bother with the exotics, like abalone steaks, chicken paws (a.k.a. chicken feet, I've tried them before and they're not for me) or shark's fin soup ($289 for 10). But even the familiar, especially the oysters and other seafood, is uncommonly fresh.

Take tiger clams, more than a dozen tossed with black beans, green peppers and a basil sauce with a slippery lick of licorice. Big, plump scallops with crinkly, crisp snow peas were freshly and quickly cooked in a wine sauce. Mangrove snapper has never been as rich in my mouth as it was here, steamed whole and gilded with a sauce of ginger and scallions.

For depth of flavor, try something braised in a clay pot, like eggplant spiced to stir the soul. Salted fish, chicken and tofu had much of the taste I remember from San Francisco, but needed more salted fish; if it was toned down down deliberately, please crank it back up. (And some salt-baked chicken, too, please.)

Only beef chow fun, with wide egg noodles in a nutty brown sauce, reminded me of the bland old days; it needed a punch of vinegar or mustard (which it got when I had it cold for lunch).

Greatest fun is in smaller dishes, so explore the appetizers at dinner. A small chunk of duck -- roasted with a crisp, surprisingly fatless, cinnamon-y crust -- as good as duck gets this side of maigret. Try minced squab in lettuce leaves for the most delicate of dark meat, or a rich soup sweetened with precious dried scallops.

Dim sum, China's most winning delicacies, meats and seafood in all manner of dumplings and other small bites, are served in profusion at lunch every day and longer on weekends.

Start with the most familiar, steamed puffy buns filled with sweet tidbits of pork barbecue, or siu mai sausage in wet wrappers: They're the juiciest I've had. Then pluck adventurously from the carts of passing servers. At $3 or less for a small dish, dim sum's cheaper than sushi, just as much fun (and it's all cooked).

Slices of beef shank and tendon are surprisingly sweetly marinated, shrimp in pillows of rice noodles are not too soggy to eat -- and turnip cakes are nothing to fear.

If you remember when Chinese food offered a taste of something different, at Albert's you'll find it does again.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Albert's Asian Bistro

301 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-1191

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sunday; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily

Reservations: Suggested for groups of eight or more

Credit cards: Most major Details: Smoking section available, license pending for full bar, good wheelchair access

Prices: $8.95 to $35.95

Special features: Dim sum, valet parking, takeout

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