You know Royal China in Santa Rosa is no ordinary Chinese restaurant the moment you step inside.
The lush interior and low lighting recall a different time, when men wore fedoras instead of baseball caps and women wore hats with lacy veils. The sound system was playing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" as our party walked in. That sounded about right.
The d?or doesn't suggest a place but rather a feeling as it combines white-tablecloth place settings with icons from Europe and Asia. Reproductions of beautiful Van Gogh paintings alternate with mirrors and feathery dragons climbing the walls. Wall sconces throwing a red glow are affixed to the dragons, and hydra-like tentacles twist up and out of the tops of the sconces. The ornamentation is more festive than eerie — or maybe a bit of both if you're young enough.
You pay a little more than at many Chinese restaurants, but the food's high quality warrants it. You'll notice that menu prices typically end in the number eight, since eight is a lucky number in China. At many Asian places, tea is served when you sit down, much like bread and butter at western restaurants. Here it's $1.50 per person. Still, prices are moderate, the portions are large, and the service is attentive.
The wine list isn't extensive, but the choices are well selected. This kind of food might call for a Roth Chardonnay at $36 a bottle, or a Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc for $43. Hartford Court Pinot Noir at $43 makes a fine accompaniment to Chinese food.
First out of chef Andy Hsieh's kitchen were the house-made and deep fried Vegetarian Egg Rolls ($6.38, 3 stars). The menu says you get four, but Chef Hsieh sent out six pieces — which may have been three rolls cut in half. The slender shreds of carrots, cabbage and mushrooms were crunchy-fresh, the rolls weren't greasy, and they were extra tasty when dipped in the accompanying fiery Chinese yellow mustard and cooling sweet sauce.
A really good chicken broth is light, sweet and clear — just what is found in the Bean Curd and Spinach Soup ($8.18, 3 stars). Too often, chicken broth tastes like salt, but not at Royal China. The broth's impression is refreshment, with just a touch of spiciness. Delicate bits of tofu and spinach leaves enhance the pleasure.
Who ever heard of a Chinese Taco ($12.98, 3 stars)? Well, Andy Hsieh for one. He constructs this winning dish with a combination of chicken, shrimp, onions, chow mein noodles and water chestnuts, all wrapped in a large wonton. And here, a mildly sweet brown sauce appears as a topping on the taco's ingredients.
Mu Shu Pork ($9.88, 2? stars) was a pleasing combination of shredded pork and cabbage meant to be rolled up burrito style in each of four steamed pancakes. The problem was that the filling was mixed with enough of that same brown sauce that the flavor of the meat and vegetables was submerged. Ditto with the Beef Chow Fun ($9.18, 2? stars) — wide flat noodles, tender beef, flavor of brown sauce. Noodles have a delicate flavor and beef has a savory meaty taste all its own, but it all tasted like brown sauce. I would encourage this obviously talented chef to vary the sauces on those dishes to give the flavors of the ingredients a better chance.