THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF FINE CHINA: AN ATTEMPT AT HIGH-END CHINESE CUISINE
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
by Andrew Chalk
When I heard that high end Chinese cuisine was coming to downtown Dallas my first reaction was surprise, and then skepticism. It is hard to compete with the indigenous product when it is so strong. And while Dallas may not be Hong Kong or Vancouver, we are solid in authentic Chinese food from several regions of China. Sure, there are the P.F. Chang’s and Pei Wei chains but they don’t compete at the high end where you would expect to attract a more informed diner.
RESTAURANT JUST OPENED. IT IS ALL IN THE CONCEPT...
I had to find out what was going on so I made a reservation. It was just four days after opening night so there are some things I won’t critique. The obvious one is service, as nobody has yet found a way to get service running smoothly sooner than six weeks after opening date. It is just restaurant law. That said, our waitress was very helpful. Also, when we arrived at the maître’d stand there was a customer in front engaging the maître’d with a lot of questions about the restaurant. A young lady working at the stand saw us, stepped round the conflab, and handled seating us per our reservation, without waiting. She turned a serial process into a parallel one. That is initiative.
The other thing that I won’t critique is the execution of the recipes behind the dishes we ordered. At this stage in a restaurant’s life it is the concept and vision that is fair game.
HOW IT FEELS
Fine China is situated behind a bar off the lobby of the hotel. There is no natural light other than what makes it off the street scene the other side of the bar. That makes it a challenging space for the restaurant designer. Precisely how you judge this designer’s work will depend on where you are seated. There have already been some puff pieces in the Dallas media, but if you do make a reservation specify to not be at the tables at the back on the west side. That is where the decorating budget ran out and you will find yourself in a gloomy corner with obvious flaws. For example, there is a table on each side of the alcove and only one light, which is in the ceiling in the middle. This means that when you ask your waiter or waitress about the menu, they stand between you and the light, making the discussion impossible. Better design would have put some sconce lights on the walls as an alternative light source. But that would also have drawn attention to how plain the painted walls are. They are crying out for texture (fabric?).
SORRY, I DIDN’T HEAR THAT LAST PARAGRAPH
The other thing you won’t escape is the noise. With the music off it averaged 82dB on Decibel X, and 86dB with the music on. That is louder than a diesel truck doing 40 mph at 50 ft (84 dB) so don’t come here for quiet conversation. I wonder who wants a restaurant ambient noise level that high? Is it something the restaurant’s consultants told them? They should attract a lot of ‘Tinder dates not working’ and divorcing couples meeting to discuss custody.
Before we discuss the menu it should be said that with it designed the way it is there is a big lag before appetizers arrive. Tex-Mex restaurants fill this with chips and salsa. Maybe oyster crackers or something would work here?
The menu is based on a shotgun education the chef undertook in the immediate year before the restaurant opened. She had never cooked Chinese before that. To learn to do so she staged in Las Vegas and New York. The resulting menu is heavily dim sum weighted, along with some small cold plates as other appetizers. Serving dim sum in Dallas invites comparison with mainstays Kirin Court (average wait time 1 hour at Sunday noon) and Garden Restaurant. They both have xiao long bao and shu mai, like Fine China, plus a lot of other choices. The other putative specialty is Cantonese Roast Duck, a kind of petit bourgeois version of the legendary Peking Duck. This is going to invite comparison with 3-6-9 Chinese Barbecue, Beijing Brothers, cash-only favorite First Chinese Barbecue (Richardson location), Mr. Wok, and doubtless numerous others. The dollar-for-dollar comparison is going to be invidious (Beijing Brothers will sell you a whole Peking Duck, including all trimmings, for the same price as a half duck at Fine China. Plus, the chef at Beijing Brothers will put on a noodle making show - no charge).
THE WINE LIST MAY WIN AN AWARD FOR ‘WORST IN TOWN’
The by-the-glass wine list (five whites and five reds) is a disaster - slung together without imagination but with a double review by accountants to keep the margins up. The bottles (20 in total) are slightly better. In both cases this is terribly sad because it is a tremendous opportunity missed. The real competitor is BYOB. Just about any Chinese restaurant in town has it. Fine China is pushing high margin cocktails instead of wine (a popular pursuit these days) but, unlike wine, they don’t go with food.
On the other side of the equation are a couple of factors in Fine China’s favor. One is the captive market of hotel guests. The other is an absence of sit down Chinese restaurants in the area. Most of the competition is at least a 20-minute drive away (plus traffic, but thankfully that is virtually unheard of in Dallas).
I started out skeptical that the concept of high-end Chinese was viable in Dallas. I am even more skeptical now. If I was an F&B executive I would be rolling alternative restaurant concepts over in my mind (Dallas doesn’t have a Barrafina - now there’s an idea).
Our check came to $160 for two, including tax and tip. Two glasses of wine are included in that number. Also, we Ubered, and you may like to as well. It saved a long wait at the valet stand (there was at least one wedding reception on the night we ate).
Update: I paid for my meal and tried to dine anonymously.