by Alice Levitt
5 Market Street, South Burlington, 658-3626
It's fair season. One of my favorite dining destinations of the year, the Champlain Valley Fair, starts this Saturday. Last week, I got a head start on some classic fair foods at the latest Chinese buffet on the block, Hong Kong Jade Restaurant, which occupies the South Burlington space until recently filled by the Orchid.
Dining out is always fun, but rarely have I been anywhere with quite the carnival atmosphere of Hong Kong Jade. For $7.99 each (the slightly higher weekend price), we were treated to a Saturday lunch that included everything one would expect from a Chinese buffet, plus make-your-own noodle soup, fried dough and all the cotton candy we wanted.
The only downside, of course, was that this was a Chinese buffet. The food was not exactly memorable. Sweet and sour pork was wincingly sweet. So was the honey chicken. Oily but otherwise nondescript veggie lo mein was nothing to write home about, nor was the pork fried rice. However, a few elements helped Hong Kong Jade rise above its gimmicks.
The place had three kinds of dim sum, a rarity at Chinese buffets. I started with the round bun, which was filled with sweet red bean. The dough was surprisingly moist and the filling had a nice ratio of textured bean chunks to smooth paste. Just wish I'd known to save the unlabeled snack for dessert.
I'd found it in a steamer next to the bun at right, which was filled with cabbage, other finely chopped vegetables and more than its fair share of ginger. I hate to say it, but it was delicious. There was no prepared dipping sauce for the bun, but a condiment bar at the buffet allowed me to whip up a quick concoction of soy, vinegar and chile sauce.
My favorite, however, was the dumpling at the left of the above photo. The ginger-and-soy-flavored ground pork remained moist in its chafing dish. Even more admirably, so did the delicate wonton skin. It reminded me of something that might be brought to my table at La Maison Kam Fung in Montréal.
As a lifelong devotee of trashy Mongolian buffets, I was excited to learn that the "hibachi" was included in my meal, but nonplussed to see that my options were limited to a few veggies and a range of mostly pre-cooked meats. I waited excitedly to choose a sauce and watch my food be sautéed on the griddle in front of me. Nope. Turns out, the "hibachi" was actually a lady combining my chosen ingredients into a soup with my choice of noodles — I went for thick rice sticks in favor of rice vermicelli and egg noodles — then delivering it to my table.
It's pretty (above right), right? Too bad it tasted like dish water. I detected a hint of curry clinging to the edges of the bowl. The soup created a slight burn at the back of my throat, but seemed entirely devoid of salt or anything else to flavor it. Fortunately, the cook saw the disappointment on my face and brought a mix of hoisin sauce and chile paste, additions which made the broth more agreeable.
After the triumph of some excellent, al dente and garlicky green beans and tasty vegetables (including cucumbers) in curry sauce, it was time for dessert. I skipped the kimchee on the dessert table, opting instead to make my own strawberry sundae, as well as to snag kiwis, some cake and the aforementioned fried dough and cotton candy. I hit four different sections of the restaurant to fill the small plate.
The fried dough was admirably moist and fluffy, but the rest of the from-the-package desserts were unremarkable. Cotton candy was spun to order into a huge mound, which went well with the $2 chocolate milk shakes we added to the fun.
And it was fun. Lunch felt like a celebration, even when pushing sweet sauce off of meat. That said, I found enough genuinely enjoyable grub to make a meal around my cotton candy. And that's what really matters.