The best way to have Chinese food is a big banquet with several courses to feast on. Last week I organized a smaller version of a spring banquet and invited some of my favorite food blogging friends.
We gathered at Great China, the popular Berkeley Chinese restaurant that had to close for a few months after a fire in its old location. But like the classic phoenix rising from the ashes, Great China opened bigger and more hip at a new and larger location just a few blocks from the old location and diagonally across from the UC-Berkeley campus.
The open and contemporary spot has an industrial-chic vibe with a large bar up front — a total 180 from the old, more traditional spot. Gone are the white-cloth-covered tables and instead there are sleek wood tables and exposed concrete floors.
Joining me for dinner were Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging (along with her husband, Mr. K), Christine of East Bay Dish, and Brenda of Bites & Bourbon. I suggested a few dishes and away we went, dining on seven courses.
I’d eaten at the old Great China and liked it, especially because of its Northern Chinese slant that provides a bit more spicy dishes than many Cantonese-focused restaurants in the Bay Area. The new Great China had a younger vibe, but the service is a bit rushed, probably because they’re trying to turn the tables since there are constant crowds waiting in front.
This meant that after our appetizer and soup, our remaining five courses came to our table one after the other, all in a matter of minutes. This became a challenge to fit all the big plates onto the table (and I always hate how waiters stare at you like you’re supposed to take the dishes or move things around when really it’s their job to pace the food or else figure out where to put the dishes).
After we were able to squeeze all the plates onto the table, we focused on eating. Among the dishes were some of Great China’s signature plates, such as the Peking Roast Duck ($34.95), Walnut Prawns ($15.95), and twice-cooked pork ($9.95).
Probably one of its more unique dishes is the appetizer known as “Double Skin” (we got a medium order, $19.95). Not sure where the name comes from, but it’s a cold dish that has a base of mung bean noodles (clear flat noodles) that’s mixed with a variety of things, including carrots, cucumbers, calamari, shrimp, and sea cucumber. The plate is mixed at the table with a sauce that is both sweet and vinegary, with the usual soy flavor.
It was probably my favorite dish because of the unusual combination, but it’s a classic cold pickled appetizer dish for Northern Chinese cuisine. The Peking Duck, a classic banquet dish where roasted duck is brought out with the crispy skin separated from the meat and created into individual wraps. Some Chinese restaurants serve it with steamed buns, but Great China serve them with thin pancakes, like a tortilla, but their version was extremely thin, making it really hard to separate from the stack and hold the delicious skin and hoi sin sauce with scallions.
The Walnut Prawns, a very American-oriented Chinese favorite, was probably one of the better preparation I’ve seen for awhile, with the mayonnaise-based sauce surrounding the shrimp coming off with the perfect glaze. The prawns were also quite big.
We were so overwhelmed by the rush of food that I forgot to take a picture of the guo ta tofu, a dish recommended by our server. It’s a popular dish of fried tofu squares served with a soy-garlic sauce with cilantro and scallions. I thought it was average, and not as special as the other dishes.
I made sure we got some greens with the sautéed snow pea leaves, but on the menu Great China prepares it with century eggs, which are those gelatinous black looking eggs you often see in Chinese jook or congee. I’ve never had it sautéed with greens, so wanted to see what it was like. The eggs were cut into bits and sautéed with the snow pea leaves, but I didn’t get much of the pungent flavor of the century eggs.
The Last Bite
Despite the sometimes rushed service, Great China has hit the big times with its new, larger location. The quality of the food is just as good as the old location, and now with a bar, it can be a contemporary Chinese restaurant that appeals to more and more people.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Great China, 2190 Bancroft Way (at Oxford), Berkeley. PH: 510.843.7996. Open lunch daily, 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m.; and dinner daily, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations accepted by phone. Major credit cards accepted. greatchinaberkeley.com
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