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Restaurant Reviews

Aroma therapy

What is it with you and Chinese food?" a neighbor recently asked me. Apparently, he'd been observing the steady parade of delivery drivers from various local restaurants in our driveway and the takeout boxes of yang chow fried rice and moo shu pork in our refrigerator for the past two years that we'd been living in our house.

"I like it," I answered simply, to which he replied, "Oh." I suppose he was looking for a more illuminating reason -- I'm about to adopt that little Chinese girl I've always talked about, or I'm on that Dr. Wok program that requires me to digest enormous quantities of soy sauce, chilies, garlic, and sesame and peanut oils. Even the stock cultural answer: I'm a northeastern Jew, so naturally I was raised on the stuff; after all, Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open on Christmas Eve. But the uncomplicated truth is that Chinese fare is my chopsticks-down favorite cuisine, in all its authentic and adapted forms, because the quickly cooked combinations of ultra-fresh vegetables and thinly sliced fish and meats appeal to my innate sense of nutrition. And because it is my benchmark meal, I employ sweet-and-sour soup and yang chow fried rice for means of celebration, consolation, comfort, and just plain ol' dinner on those oh-so-rare days I'm at home and don't feel like cooking.

Not that this is any business of my neighbors. After all, I don't query the family of six down the street that seems to live on Domino's. But nonsensical as it is, I do understand that people are generally more interested in what I consider to be steadily edible, not only when I'm out for dinner but when I'm supping at home, than in what the electrical engineer or the construction foreman or the hospital administrator does. In fact, I've caught new acquaintances rifling through my cupboards and pantry for precisely that reason -- to satisfy their curiosity about what restaurant critics really eat. I have even gone to other friends' houses and had them proudly show me that they've followed my lead and bought certain products, because if I purchase, say, Progresso chicken noodle soup, then it obviously must be of higher ilk than Chunky.

I wish more folks would follow me to Chinese restaurants. Our regional places, be they Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, or Mandarin, appear to suffer from a supply-and-demand paradox. Everyone complains about the lack of good examples, but because of past experiences and current assumptions, when a new one appears, no one's willing to try it. Instead, we cynically stick with the same mediocre joint. This dearth of support, coupled with an inordinate amount of culinary pessimism, forces even the most enterprising restaurants with talented chefs to become lackadaisical. Thus, ambitious programs like dim sum (dumplings, rolls, and other savory snacks that are served from wheeled carts or made to order throughout the afternoon and evening) turn into 24-7, all-you-can-eat, help-yourself buffets. Is it any wonder our young diners are being raised to believe that Chinese food is more about quantity and price than genuine quality? More about it being merely acceptable than truly accomplished? Something that we should seek at the same price as a fast-food burger instead of what we'll lay out for a strip sirloin in a highly overrated steak-house chain?

I can only keep my fingers crossed (but my chopsticks straight) that the inevitable does not happen to Aroma China, which has been open under demonstrably knowledgeable ownership for the past two months. Located in the far nook of a typical Boca Raton shopping plaza, it can be easily overlooked. Prices are not outrageous, but they're not cheap: Beef and scallops in oyster sauce costs $18.75, as does jumbo shrimp with ginger and scallions. A Chilean sea bass casserole runs a customer $21.75. I'd rather see the latter main ingredient replaced with a less endangered fish, a move that might also bring the price down, but in the end, I'm willing to pay whatever Aroma wants to charge.

Most of the entrées, exclusive of seafood and the "chef specialties," hover between $10 and $15, and a whole Peking duck, which doesn't require a customer to order it 24 hours in advance, goes for a mere $39. Since a Peking duck deconstructs into an appetizer (the skin wrapped in pancakes with scallions and plum sauce), a stir-fry dish comprising the primary breast meat and vegetables, and a platter containing the legs and wings, that's a pretty good deal. Note too that customers can glean a half duck, a convenience I almost never see outside New York City's Chinatown, where the birds often hang upside down in the windows, being rendered of fat and advertising their crisp, golden-honey skin.

Like most people, though, I consider Peking duck something for which I must be in the mood, simply because the quantity of food often precludes ordering other dishes alongside. I don't have that caveat with dim sum. The small servings of these tasty buns, cakes, and dumplings, enhanced by the reasonable range of pricing ($1.95 to $5.95), mean that patrons can order and sample a veritable feast. And because the dim sum at Aroma, which is available all day and evening, is made to order, you also enjoy it in a leisurely fashion. In fact, our server warned, our initial order of six or so such snacks could take some time.

It didn't, at least no more than it reasonably should: Quick enough that we didn't start checking our watches, long enough to confirm that the items indeed were being prepared from scratch. The pure, clean taste of the shrimp dumpling har gow, a sticky rice paper shell with plump shrimp inside, confirmed the dish's freshly cooked status -- as did the pair of spring rolls, which oozed chunks of pork and tender shreds of cabbage in light-brown gravy. Indeed, nearly every dim sum offering we tried, ranging from shrimp-stuffed mushrooms to pan-fried cakes stuffed with shredded leeks, was exemplary. My only quibble was with a dish of steamed pork ribs. Chopped into nug-gets, the riblets had an unpleasant ratio of fat to meat, and while the flavor was pleasant -- when is fat not delicious? -- the texture was a bit gristly.

Hitting up Aroma for a casual, family-style meal is just as rewarding: The restaurant not only delivers but excels. We couldn't finish a bowl of exceptional house won ton soup, given that it was stocked with dumplings, pork, chicken, shrimp, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, and mushrooms, so we decided to take the rest home. In packaging it, the kitchen added extra broth (which, by the way, tasted like it had actually been brewed with a chicken rather than reconstituted from bouillon), so we'd have enough the next day for a hearty serving. That was thoughtful, as was the constant refilling of fried noodles, duck sauce, and hot tea, all of which are complimentary.

Of course, the real test of a Chinese restaurant comes down to the freshness of its ingredients. Sometimes it's impossible to judge how old a piece of chicken or a stalk of broccoli is, because they taste just fine; other times, it's plain that a shrimp or mushroom is close to rotting or has even already gone over to the garbage side. At Aroma, there's no question that each ingredient was cooked at its freshest point. How long had the jumbo shrimp, sautéed with spinach in a delectable brown sauce, been out of the water? Judging by the tightly curled shape and the snap apparent in the texture, I'd guess no more than a couple of hours. When were the eggplants, napped with a garlic sauce that yields just the amount of spice you request, snapped from beneath their leaves? I'd say only minutes had passed, given that the chunks of purple Japanese eggplant had retained their bright hue even after cooking. The chicken chow fun, a supple rice noodle dish boasting julienne onions, bean sprouts, and melting white poultry, also tasted deliciously fresh.

In addition to the truly pleasant service and the undeniably great food, Aroma seems to have its priorities in order. It caters to the community with buffet brunches on Sundays and holidays such as Thanksgiving, as well as delivery service and the warm recognition of regulars. Its appeal widens with the always accessible Peking duck and dim sum dishes, not to mention its deference to first-time patrons. It's strengthened by consistency. No reason, according to my senses, not to make Aroma an everyday perfume.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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