VENTNOR - The building at 5200 Ventnor Ave. has seen its share of Asian restaurants come and go over the years. Two very good Vietnamese restaurants have tried but failed, and a Japanese sushi place disappeared quickly enough to make it seem like a dream.
The latest cuisine to move into the space is Chinese, always a crowd pleaser. China Dumpling offers all of the recognizable dishes such as egg rolls and spare ribs, wonton or hot and sour soup, as well as plenty of noodle dishes to choose from. China Dumpling, as its name implies, also specializes in those Chinese dumplings called Dim Sum. We are hopeful this concept will be strong enough to endure.
As we entered the restaurant, our attention was immediately drawn to a young man working behind a glass window, center stage in the restaurant. He was nonchalantly rolling out dough into small rounds, stuffing them with a chopped-pork mixture and adeptly pleating the half-moon-shaped packages with his fingers. We hadn't planned on dinner and a show, but we couldn't resist. We ordered a portion of homemade pork dumplings ($5.95) and some shrimp dumplings ($3.95).
Traditional Dim Sum dumplings can come with many different fillings. Our pork mixture was highly seasoned and wrapped in a heavier type of dough, and the shrimp stuffing was a chunky version with plenty of chopped shrimp wrapped in a lighter, almost-translucent pastry and served in a tiny aluminum steamer basket. We had ours steamed; pan-fried, they are sometimes called pot stickers. Vegetarian dumplings were also available on the menu. A dipping sauce tasting mostly of soy and vinegar was the perfect acid adjunct to the meaty, stuffed packages.
Having tried and liked salt-and-pepper chicken wings before, we chose the salt-and-pepper calamari ($8.95). Lightly floured and simply seasoned, this dish consisted of squid bodies cut into squares and scored so that they curl up like a jelly roll when fried. It was basic and good, and tossed with bits of sauteed red pepper, jalapeno peppers and green scallion.
From a separate section called Chef's Specialties, we selected the sizzling Mandarin steak with onions ($18.95). Thin slices of beef steak were dredged in flour, fried and served in a sweet-and-tangy brown sauce. Sauteed-onion slices made the dish smell and taste like an Asian steak hoagie. (If only we had known to smuggle in a hard Italian roll.) The steak, onion and sauce were very good on their own.
Sizzling seafood in black-bean sauce ($18.95) was a more typical stir fry with plenty of shrimp, scallops and lobster meat, including claws and knuckles. Chinese vegetables included snow peas, green peppers and water-chestnut slices in mild-tasting broth and bean sauce slightly bound to coat the vegetables and seafood.
China Dumpling features many of the feng shui touches expected in a Chinese restaurant. Mirrored walls make the room more expansive in more ways than one, and commemorative shrines and lucky bamboo plants all contribute to the harmony of the space. But if cleanliness and order are keystones of feng shui, China Dumpling needs some domestic help with the windows, sills and restrooms.
Our server, too, seemed out of harmony with the rest of the staff, all of whom had a more confident air about them. He poured hot tea over our plate, napkin and menu but didn't seem to notice; in any event,he didn't try to wipe it up. A little later, he dropped a lid off of his tray and onto our table with a crash while attempting to serve our entree course. He apologized profusely. No big deal. Everybody has to learn sometime, and he was obviously new to the serving game. He, too, will find his balance. He got our order correct and that was a plus.
Several large, round tables were preset for a banquet. As the family arrived, we dined in the clatter of relatives happy to see each other again. Most of the guests arrived just as our server brought a plate with some watermelon slices and sweet cookies, along with some cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies in lieu of dessert. Our fortune's printed advice? Warning: Do not eat your fortune. Very feng shui.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
5200 Ventnor Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $1.75 to $8.95; entrees, $7.95 to $35
Our bill for two: $61 plus tip
Web site: www.