Peeking Ducks

Several months ago I received a menu in my mailbox. This isn't at all unusual -- menus are deposited in my box at the office all the time. All too frequently they're unremarkable, or notable only for the amount of typos they contain. What distinguished this one was its lack of identification (though a Chinese symbol and characters were stamped on the front, no English name or address was supplied) and, after a quick reading, the immediate desire it provoked in me to dine there.

Some quandary. I could have solved the mystery right away by talking to the person who had put the menu in my box, but I didn't have to. The dishes -- jellyfish salad, swallows' nests with prawns, braised shark fins -- gave it away: This menu could only have come from Bird Road's Tropical Chinese Restaurant, a place I'd never visited but one I'd heard about. And everything I'd heard was good.

Located in the Tropical Shopping Center (a strip mall), this modern, 200-seat establishment evokes the elegant East and the sophistication of San Francisco. The dining room's most striking feature is a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, an odd take on the contemporary open kitchen that allows patrons to monitor the chefs Metrozoo-style. (Like the permanent residents of Metrozoo, they mostly pretend you're not there.) If you sit close enough to the kitchen, your nostrils practically pressed against the window, what you see might determine what you order. Too late for us (we worked strictly from the menu), we spied a pineapple boat engulfed in flames on one platter and a whole roasted Peking duck on another, its neck arched like a swan's. (In an East-meets-West attempt, the duck is described on the menu as the "coolest" in town; this and other descriptions such as "totally awesome" are a hokey contrast to comments like "consumed daily will improve one's health.")

Though the drama of presentation would seem vaguely Polynesian, Tropical is no tacky South Pacific theme park of a restaurant, relying on the sale of coconut rum boats to keep it afloat. The chefs do, however, draw on influences from all parts of the then-and-now Chinese empire, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, rather than a single region. A variety of complex dishes are cooked with astonishing speed and expertise, and are served singly as they're ready. In fact our appetizers appeared so quickly that we suspected the preparation had included prefrying, a quibble that proved to be our only complaint about the cuisine. The shredded filling of the "paper chicken" -- ginger, scallions, black mushrooms, and chicken -- was delicious, but the rice sheets that had been rolled around it and deep-fried were hard and dense, too crunchy to chew comfortably. Likewise, the four "Bermuda triangles," minced shrimp "disappeared in bean curd sheet," were tough on the teeth and coated with a thin sheen of grease, more reminiscent of bland fried won tons than of crisp shrimp toast.

Won ton soup was a vast improvement, plump shrimp dumplings floating in a pleasantly salty chicken broth stocked with vegetables. Ten soups are offered on the menu, all served for two. Choices range widely, from seafood tofu to minced beef with mashed potato and cilantro. That variety is typical of Tropical; there's a lot of decision-making involved in a meal. Every category -- "exotic delicacy," "vegetables and tofu," ad infinitum -- lists enough temptations to cause an attack of ordering anxiety. My own overwhelmed party never even got around to the last page of the menu and its eighteen noodle dishes. This gives us an excuse to go back.

One of our favorite concoctions, Hong Kong-style steak, consisted of beef medallions marinated in sake, then stir-fried with onions in a tangy tomato-based sauce. Reminiscent of barbecue, the steak was rare and tender. But it was the touch of sake that made this dish memorable, yielding a sauce that was among the best I've had in any of Miami's Asian restaurants.

Black bean sauce is abundantly featured, and very good, too. On a platter of beautiful, sizzling white-meat chicken and vegetables, its contribution was subtle but significant. Shredded beef with spicy Szechuan sauce was similarly understated. This dish, complemented by sliced red pepper, bamboo shoots, and black mushrooms, had the added bonus of ginger to boost its flavor. Again, the degree of spiciness was perfect against the butter-textured beef.

Having consumed far too much of it over an extended period of time, I long ago stopped ordering Cantonese honey-garlic chicken. But some occasions call for an old favorite, especially if it's prepared this well. The boneless chicken was juicy in its crystallized shell, practically candied by the honey and saved from being too sweet by the right touch of garlic.

Triple-salute chicken was a remarkable combination of three different sauces, pieces of chicken "toasted" in a clay pot in equal parts wine sauce, soybean sauce, and soup broth, served in a stainless steel mini-wok. Aromatic and tasty, the chicken had picked up a just a hint of sweetness and a brush of saltiness.

Pink crystal shrimp were more seasoned than sauced. Stir-fried with sliced water chestnuts, the small, flamingo-colored shrimp tasted of ginger and sesame oil, a welcome contrast to the darker, richer sauced dishes.

Despite such meat-centered entrees, Tropical also offers greens as side dishes, among them seasonal specialties like delicate snow-pea tips or young leeks stir-fried in sake. A more sedate choice, sauteed fresh mixed vegetables, proved to contain the predictable suspects (broccoli, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, carrots, and mushrooms) bathed in an innocuous sauce that pleased everyone but astonished no one.

Individual bowls of white rice were brought to each diner but tea and chopsticks had to be requested. Not that this was particularly surprising -- although Tropical's fare is Asian, its Westchester setting is distinctly Cuban-American. Service was efficient, but it was also brisk to the point of being brusque. Sectioned oranges and fortune cookies were dumped abruptly on our table as soon as the main dishes were cleared. The check followed without even a cursory "can I get you anything else?" The reason for such haste became obvious when we reached the foyer, which was packed with hungry people. If they're determined to jack up the turnover rate, Tropical's management might try a kinder method -- like trimming the seven-page menu. Just so long as they don't change the food.


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