First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
199 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom; (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
My dining- and wining-centric colleagues Blair Robertson and Chris Macias and I share an experience that happens often. Readers call to ask the template question, "Where can we get terrific Chinese food in the Sacramento region?"
We have answers.
The wrong answer: China.
Wrong answer No. 2: San Francisco.
My personal new right answer: The Cantonese-style Lotus 8, which opened recently in the space that once housed the Chinese restaurants Liu's and then Yummy Kitchen.
"We named our restaurant by combining a beautiful flower and a lucky number," said co-owner James Huang.
It's lucky for diners that veteran chef Eric Kuang oversees the kitchen. When he worked in Hawaii, he mentored under a master chef from Hong Kong. That chef "took the young apprentice under his wing and passed on all his cooking know-how, including his secret recipes," said Huang.
To make matters better, Lotus 8 general manager Michael Chow reminded us, "If you don't see what you want, tell us what you like, and we will create a menu for you."
Menu: This is not a one-sauce-fits-all Chinese restaurant. The choices on the standard menu are extensive and well organized beef, pork, chicken, duck, lamb, seafood, noodles and the like.
The "chef's special" menu is more esoteric, with plates of winter melon cubes with lotus leaves, house chicken in "secret sauce" and salted egg with pumpkin.
For groups, three banquet menus pile on enough food for four to 12 diners, depending on which version you order; they range from $88 to $368. In Chinese culture, such banquets are usually family occasions at which each dish carries a symbolic significance. For diners like us, it means more top-end choices.
Many of the dishes on the collective menus are seldom seen in mainstream Chinese restaurants, such as fried salt-and-pepper tofu, fish maw with crab meat soup, steamed minced pork with salted fish, curried lamb, whole deep-fried sole, sautéed scallops and octopus in XO sauce (spicy seafood sauce), sautéed beef cubes and shrimp in black pepper sauce, sizzling oysters, and more.
For dessert, the go-to surprise is a crispy-creamy ball of powdered sugar-dusted "fried condensed milk." Lighter are shaved-ice treats in two flavors: seasonal fruit and red bean, made with reduced condensed milk.
Price point: Given the freshness and quality of ingredients, the hefty portions and the artistry involved in assembling the dishes, the price is right. Seafood ranges from $13 to $28, for instance; pork and chicken from $10 to $24; noodle-based meals are $10 to $13.
Ambiance: The owners didn't skimp while converting a drab room into a soothing, color-balanced oasis of casual dining. Feng shui, anyone? Don't overlook the massive chandelier hanging high above the tables.
Drinks: Pretty standard. Four OK California wines (two red, two white), three beers (Tsingtao, Heineken and Budweiser) and iced tea, sodas and juice.
Service: Marked by attention to detail and thorough explanations of dishes.
First impressions: On two visits, two different lunch pals and I tasted a number of dishes, all of them four-star.
"This is the best orange chicken I've ever had," one of them said. Agreed.
Another lunch pal, veteran diner Greg Jung, who is Chinese American, said quietly, "It's one of maybe five authentic Chinese restaurants in Sacramento."
All told, we went through crispy Hong Kong noodles loaded with pork, scallops, calamari and black mushrooms; a 2-pound disjointed Dungeness crab with shallots and garlic; a whole steamed black bass, taken live from the freshwater tank (a new saltwater tank holds fish, lobster, crabs and Manila clams; call ahead for geoducks); crispy Peking duck; "special" barbecued pork, which leaves other versions in the pig pen; bitter melon with fried shrimp; soy sauce-bathed prawns; and house special fried rice (chicken, pork, beef, scallops, shrimp).
The extraordinary "fire and lightning" hot relish is a blend of dried bean curd and hard-to-source special peppers. It is available mostly on weekends.
Try it if: You want to expand your palate for Chinese cuisine and you're eager to experiment.
Forget it if: You're satisfied with the Chinese food counter in the neighborhood supermarket.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128. Twitter: @apierleonisacbe.
DINING: FIRST IMPRESSIONS