There's something comfortable and familiar about Chinese restaurants. You know what to expect — you've been eating Chinese since you were a kid — and while you're rarely disappointed, so too are you rarely surprised.
If, however, you visit Flowering Tea House in Petaluma, you may be happily aware that the quality of the food seems to be a notch above the just-OK sameness of most Chinese restaurants. This is a surprise, because the dishes we get in American Chinese eateries seldom vary from place to place. If you're looking for lemon chicken or kung pao shrimp, you know where to go.
I've not been to China, but I've asked friends who've traveled there what the food is like, and the most frequent answer is that it's more like good dim sum than the Chinese food we get here — that is, lots of varied ingredients done in surprising ways. And of course, there are different cuisines in different parts of that country. Flowering Tea House makes an attempt to at least hit some highlights of several of these cuisines.
For example, <CF103>Shrimps Noodle Roll</CF> ($5.75 <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>) are called spring or fresh rolls in Southeast Asia. Guangdong, the area of southern China that abuts Vietnam, includes rice noodle rolls in its Cantonese cuisine, but they are traditionally cooked. These are not, and thankfully so, because the Tea House's version is better than any I've had at local Thai restaurants and almost as good as the beauties made at Lisa Hemenway's Fresh in Santa Rosa. (She learned to make them in Hanoi). Each of two translucent rectangles of rice wrapper holds curled shavings of cucumber, basil leaves, two fat shrimp, lettuce, and rice-flour vermicelli noodles. The two rolls are served with peanut sauce.
The name of the restaurant, Flowering Tea House, refers to the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, that is called chahua in Chinese, which translates as flowering tea. This tea plant is a member of the camellia family, which also gives us such beautiful flowers in winter. To emphasize its Chinese connection, the restaurant's front door is flanked by replicas of the ancient terracotta warriors unearthed in Xian, China, in the 1970s. Smaller warrior replicas fill illuminated niches in a wall inside. This wall is topped by glistening green ceramic roof tiles.
As you are seated, the waiter offers you tea. A pot of hot green tea makes a nice introduction to the Flowering Tea House. There is also a short beer and wine list. The menu characterizes the food as "modern Chinese cuisine," and it is predominantly Cantonese with some Southeast Asian specialties and dishes from other regions of China, such as <CF103>Hunan Beef</CF> ($9.50 <SC12,197><SC12,197>?). The beef strips are not fiery hot, as are found in authentic Hunan restaurants, but they are wonderfully tender in their brown bean sauce and add a meaty flavor to cabbage, red and green bell peppers and baby corn cobs.
There's one don't-miss recommendation: <CF103>House-Made Pot Stickers</CF> ($5.50 <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>?). They are as good as any I've had in San Francisco, and you get six of them. The browned edges of the wonton wrappers enclose ground pork in a savory sauce. They're served with a dipping sauce, but are so delicious by themselves that the sauce may seem superfluous.
A cup of <CF103>Hot and Sour Soup</CF> ($3 <SC12,197><SC12,197><SC12,197>) turned out to be a bowl of soup both spicy hot and tangy sour, with julienned snow peas, chopped green onions, Chinese greens and bits of mushroom mixed in. The menu's array of appetizers included a <CF103>Green Onion Pancake</CF> ($4.50 <SC12,197><SC12,197>) that looked very much like onion naan but was far greasier and turned gummy in the mouth. Green onion was added to the batter, the big pancake fried, then cut into wedges and served on a bed of shredded cabbage.