If you’re ordering Chinese take-out in Middletown, you have your pick of places. There’s Fong’s Restaurant, Hau Po, First Wok, Great Wall, and China King. You even have your choice between Fortune Garden or Fortune Wok. When craving some ordinary fried rice, Chow Mein noodles, or General Tso’s chicken (which every self-respecting Chinese restaurant should serve), these places will do the trick. If you want thoughtful Chinese cuisine—more than the standard fare that comes in a white box—you should probably keep looking.
I had written off Forbidden City Bistro as just another basic Chinese eatery, only marginally better than the aforementioned Middletown restaurants. My parents were coming into town and I wanted to take them (rather, have them take me) someplace special, and I didn’t think this was it. However, when I looked at their online menu, I was intrigued. It turns out that Forbidden City is not strictly a Chinese restaurant, but also draws inspiration from Malaysian cuisine. It advertises its food as both traditional and modern, inspired by multiple regional dishes, and with fusion twists thrown in. Yes, its website made me skeptical (what is a “bistro-art gallery”?), but its menu looked sophisticated and creative. Its offerings were divided into five sections: Appetizers, Entrées, Mainland Cuisine, Noodles and Rice, and Entrées out of the City. I decided to make reservations for three.
I didn’t regret my decision. Everything we ordered, from appetizers to entrées and from drinks to dessert, was delicious, on time, and delivered with excellent service. Walking in early for our reservation was no problem, and the wait staff was prompt, pleasant, and informed.
Almost as soon as we sat down, menus arrived and a bread basket was laid on the table, filled with warm, freshly baked, pillow-soft chive bread, sliced into perfect proportions. It was just enough to whet our appetites as we perused the dinner offerings.
Any question I asked while ordering was answered with extensive knowledge about the dish itself and the cuisine that inspired it. When I asked our waiter about two plates that seemed similar (the six-hour Cantonese pork and the Cheng Du short ribs both came with noodles and bok choy), he elucidated the differences, the regions they came from, and the subtly distinct flavors in each plate.
The Bistro did, however, bow to American-Chinese restaurant tradition by serving General Tso’s Chicken. Also, some of the menu choices looked rather boring—I wouldn’t have ordered the uninspired house salad, or average-looking vegetable rolls. Overall, though, the majority of dishes sounded delicious, and the ones we ended up ordering did not disappoint.
Forbidden City also has an extensive wine list, and the host is knowledgeable about the restaurant’s wines. My family enjoys a nice glass of fermented grapes, and my parents were not disappointed by Forbidden City’s selection.
Not long after the chive bread disappeared, our appetizers came. We had ordered the “China Box” (honey roasted pork in a flaky pastry shell), the edamame dumplings (transparent dough with truffle oil-marinated soybean paste), and the spicy flounder fritters. The pork was sweet and succulent, and the pastry shell light and crispy. The edamame dumplings were simple and elegant. The spicy flounder was the perfect balance of melt-in-your-mouth delicateness, greasy goodness, and just enough heat. I even drank the sauce that the dumplings were served in. As a bonus, the presentation of the satisfying food was elegant and clean, even borderline artistic.
Our entrées came not long after the last of the flounder flavor had dissipated from our tongues. My dad ordered the flounder fillet with Massaman curry, and my mom got the Peking duck confit dumplings. I ordered the Cheng Du short ribs with flat rice noodles and bok choy. However, in accordance with my family’s implicit rule, we were sharing.
Unfortunately, my dad started eating the spicy flounder first, which proved quite spicy indeed, and thus he couldn’t taste the duck or short ribs without a generous helping of bread and wine. I, too, got a piece of chili strand in one forkful, which I was forced to chase with generous gulps of water. Besides the wayward chili strand, however, the fish wasn’t overwhelmingly hot, but flavorful and mouth-watering, with spot-on spices. The tofu was not crisply pan-fried, but oddly spongy (to be fair, they do advertise it as ‘tofu sponge’). Nonetheless, the fish and the accompanying eggplant were cooked perfectly.
The duck came in a neat square dish, with four delightfully fluffy steamed buns for a make-your-own dumpling. I love steamed buns, and I practically groaned when I bit in. Although the noodles that came with my short ribs were slightly greasy and the bok choy more of a hindrance than a help, the ribs themselves were cooked to perfection. They fell apart under my fork like a good short rib should, and the serving was so generous that I had some to take home for leftovers.
We weren’t hungry after our leisurely and satisfying meal, but when the waiter offered to bring the dessert and tea menu, we couldn’t say no. I had been eyeing the frozen yogurt place across the street, but these desserts were just as sophisticated, elegant, and inspired as the rest of the menu. I couldn’t refuse.
Again, we weren’t disappointed with the decision.
Feeling too full for the rich flourless chocolate soufflé cake, we ordered the lemon curd torte with ginger reduction and the Shangri-La Lavender Pandan crème brûlée. Pandan is, our waiter informed us, a southeast Asian plant often used in cooking. The brûlée had a wonderfully savory, nutty flavor, but the true delight was the ‘crème’ itself; it may have been the lightest, airiest crème brûlée I have ever had. The lemon torte was nothing to scoff at, either. Whoever does Forbidden City Bistro’s pastries (I’m also thinking of the China Box we devoured earlier) knows their dough.
There were some negative aspects to the Bistro, I’ll admit. The chairs were uncomfortably low, forcing us to sit at the edge of our seats to eat, and the T.V. hanging over the bar was anomalous to the rest of the modest interior. The décor was nothing special, and the odd red and gold carpet clashed with the lamps hanging from the ceiling. Some of their appetizers and entrées sounded boring, and I wondered why the restaurant was only one-third full—it was, after all, only 8:45, which isn’t late for dinner or drinks on a Saturday night. However, everything that truly matters in a restaurant—food quality and selection, service, and reasonable price—was spot on.
It is, I will also warn you, a pricier choice for dinner as a student, but well worth it. If you are a strict vegetarian, your options are limited, but I would still suggest going. Take someone there on a date, or tell your parents it’s a special treat; they won’t mind paying the $15-20 a plate, and to be truthful, I wouldn’t either. It may be called Forbidden, but I won’t let that keep me away from this temple of a restaurant.