An ‘A’ for effort, but not a perfect sum
Rating: 2.0 stars
December 5, 2006 2:03:20 PM

CHANGE OF PACE: Chinese food goes upscale at Anise.
Be careful what you wish for. I have been asking Chinese restaurants to upscale their service, shorten their menus, make clear what the chef’s specialties really are, and offer the more-authentic dishes on the English-language menu. Anise follows every one of my directives, but I find the results spotty and unpredictable. At times, I actually wished for some deep-fried Chinese American food as a foil to some of the authentic Sichuan lip-flamers.

There’s plenty to like here, but one must be selective. Plus, you’re paying for the large room with well-spaced tables and service. In some ways, my favorite dish on two visits was a lunchtime special of good old gong bao chicken with roasted peanuts ($7.95). The small chunks of chicken had nuanced spicing, despite pieces of dried red-chili peppers among the peanuts. There were a few stir-fried vegetables (very few, like a piece of carrot, two of celery, and three of cabbage), and even the brown rice (optional) was short-grain and comparatively fragrant, like the best Chinese white rice. (The white rice on another visit was right up there.)

Among the dinner appetizers, I favored the perhaps not entirely authentic “pork ribs with Sichuan sweet and sour flavor” ($8). The slow cooking and gentle marinade brings out the sweet flavor of the meat on six ribs. “Zong shui jiao” (pork dumplings) ($6) are rather like the Cambridge favorite “suan la chow show” at Mary Chung’s, except that the half-moon dumplings are smaller and more intense, and the sauce partakes of hoisin and nuts as well as mild heat.

For real spice, the country-style pig ears and roasted peanuts ($7), the “lavender colored wild fern with fresh bamboo shoots and Chinese cilantro” ($9), and the lunchtime “Chinese cilantro and fresh pepper salad” ($6.50) feature plenty of red oil, although only the former bears the full two-silhouette warning. I guess really peppery stuff is appetizing in Sichuan, but the problem is that you need something like rice to clear the palate — water and beer are no help with chili oil. The pig ears were my favorite, sliced thin for crunchiness, although I didn’t spot any peanuts on the plate. The wild fern is pretty and almost lavender, but the blanched (and perhaps a little pickled?) garlic leeks and pencil-thin fresh bamboo shoots had more flavor. The salad had the most red oil per bite, but it certainly had plenty of crunch between the pile of cilantro and some thin sticks of red bell pepper.

Entrées can be quite expensive and not all that filling. The marinated baby-lamb racks with cumin powder ($22) are five baby-lamb chops, done to order, although without much cumin flavor; the rest of the rectangular plate is an orchid and a handful of simple steamed vegetables. There’s no fee for rice, but even so, this is a rather nondescript dinner. Whole striped bass with Sichuan hot-basil sauce ($23) seems more substantial, although it has no vegetables at all, unless one counts the leaves of cooked-in Asian basil and a couple of dangerous cherry peppers. The flavor in the sauce — the anise of the basil, some hot pepper, some bean paste — is quite good. But the fish was almost certainly farmed in fresh water. It came fresh and tasty, but with the mineral or ashen aftertaste of this species when farmed. Our server took most of the good pieces off the bone for us at the table.

In many ways, the most satisfying entrée is “Chef Zhou’s Tasting Menu” ($25). This is five selections from a group of 10 on the menu. I had the dumplings, pig ears, Sichuan aromatic duck on the bone ($17), snapper filet with hot bean sauce and tofu ($18), and green beans with special Sichuan black pickles ($12). The green beans were terrific. And I don’t know what Sichuan black pickles are, but I want more of them. They look like bits of caramelized scallion, but taste sweet and salty and have the numbing menthol flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. The snapper filets were just morsels of fish with larger and more delicious squares of silken tofu in a brown-bean sauce with some red-pepper paste involved. The duck was sliced breast on the bone, with the interest lying mostly in a black sauce that looked like hoisin but tasted more like Worcestershire.

Anise has a large and interesting wine list. But if it’s hard to find a wine to stand up to the salty and sharp flavors of most Chinese food, it’s nearly impossible to find one that works with the peppery flavors of Sichuan. I tried a glass of the Shoo Fly blend from Australia ($6/glass; $23/bottle). It’s aromatic and a little sweet, and if I had to guess the blend, I’d suggest chenin blanc mellowed with semillon. It would work well with almost any other cuisine. The obvious alcoholic choice is beer: Tsingtao ($4) for fun, Heineken ($3 on recent special) for economy. However, the bar has a “red cat dark and stormy” ($7) based on rum and ginger beer that has the ginger burn to cut the red-oil burn. The non-alcoholic version would be the ginger-mint lemonade ($3), which is almost all ginger, some lemon, and overpowering mint. When I ordered hot oolong tea at lunch ($4.50), I got a glass of hot water with slowly unfurling balls of gunpowder green tea. It eventually brewed up and the tea sank to the bottom.

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