The China trade-off

When it comes to Asian restaurants, sometimes divey and cheap works out better than upscale and pricey. What you gain in atmosphere at the latter, you often sacrifice in food quality. I’m never sure whether restaurateurs are attempting to satisfy timid Western palates or whether authentic taste just gets lost in the interior-decorating shuffle, but personally, I prefer flavor to frills.

David SooHoo’s latest venture, The Nine Doors, exemplifies this phenomenon. SooHoo is well-known around town for his other restaurant ventures, such as Chinois East/West and Bamboo. The Nine Doors, a good-looking spot, brings a Pan-Asian element to the menu. It features Indian samosas, Indonesian satay, Thai curry and Mongolian-style lamb. However, if you look closely, the emphasis is really on Chinese-style cooking, from chow fun to chicken in lettuce cups to familiar pot stickers. It all sounds mouthwatering, and it’s served in a setting so stylish and pretty that I briefly forgot my worries and raised my expectations.

The restaurant’s design is self-assured, from the whimsical red birdcage light fixtures to the big and comfy banquettes. There are gorgeous wood screens, attractive private rooms and cool touches to spare, including brass-wok sinks in the bathroom. The tabletop jars of chopsticks and bottles of Sriracha chili sauce wittily reference the kind of ethnic joint that The Nine Doors emphatically is not. Even the water station has an intriguing backdrop—a screen of abacuses that separates it from a sunken semiprivate room.

The kitchen would do well to take a cue from this sort of attention to detail, just as the service might benefit from emulating the surroundings’ savoir-faire. Our server seemed harried yet diffident. The food came to the table in a jumble: one appetizer, the chicken in lettuce cups, arrived and lingered. I liked the pine nuts and the contrast of the hot chicken with the cool, crisp iceberg. Unfortunately, the sauce was sweetish and bland, and the lettuce was dripping wet.

As we were finishing it, the server said, with a stressed-out apology, that the kitchen was “crashing” and that it would be a long time until we got our other food. Not 30 seconds later, our remaining dishes arrived in an indiscriminate parade of main dishes and appetizers. We were glad to have them, but it seemed to betray a breakdown in communications.

Our second appetizer, meaty little lemongrass ribs, was better. The ribs were charred and sweetly glazed, with a touch of mint, though I searched in vain for the distinctive flavor of lemongrass. Spicy green-papaya salad helped cleanse the palate from the unctuous ribs, though it lacked the tangy-sweet balance that distinguishes the dish.

The platters sounded appealing. (The menu is well-written and seductive; I’ll give it that.) We opted for scallops with Thai basil sauce—a stir-fry that promised sugar peas, mushrooms and “spicy fresh basil.” It had more items besides, plus far too much gloppy, uninteresting sauce and not enough Thai basil flavor. The slender snow peas were overcooked to lifelessness. The meaty scallops, however, were well-cooked and tender.

The chow fun, a stir-fry of thick rice noodles, was chock-full of stuff, too. In addition to various vegetables (I noted an over-reliance on celery in several dishes), there was a weakly flavored black-bean sauce and three meats. My favorite was the sweet barbecued pork, but one bite of it was almost crunchy with attached cartilage. I don’t mind that texture, which does feature in many Chinese dishes, but here it seemed like a mistake.

In a touch that you wouldn’t find at a cheap Chinese-food joint, the wine list is well-conceived. It’s short but affordable. Almost everything on it is available by the glass, thoroughly described and evidently chosen to go well with Asian flavors, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer and three dry rosés. There’s also a good deal for people who might drop by after work: $19.95 buys you a half-bottle of wine and two appetizers. The imaginative mixed drinks are pleasant, as well. The Light Green Dragon, made with guava and lime juice, was indeed light, refreshing and fruity.

The portions were so big that we didn’t really have room for dessert, but it was my husband’s birthday, so we soldiered on—he with “Chocolate Dragon Slayer” cake, and I with Thai coffee ice cream. We probably shouldn’t have bothered. The cake was slightly burnt at its fluted edge. It managed to be densely fudgy yet crumbly. The icy, uninteresting ice cream lacked the distinctive flavor of Thai iced coffee.

The generally disappointing food at The Nine Doors probably won’t do much to dampen its popularity. Open about two months, it was buzzing on a recent Friday night, and it enjoys a location adjacent to several hotels. The setting—and the likelihood that the restaurant will pack in an all but captive audience of out-of-towners—may be part of the problem. The menu and the setting are attractive enough to get people in the door. The road-weary traveler, unlikely to be a repeat customer, might not care that the food is merely adequate, without the sparkle you might find at a place where less attention was paid to the décor and much more to the dishes.