Restaurant Review - Sweet and sour

It's the same ole Chinese food at Uncle Wong's

The maraschino cherries are the deal breakers. When a crispy whole snapper arrives at our table with two radioactively red cherries — stems and all — protruding from the fish's eye sockets, I know I won't be finding authentic Chinese cuisine at Uncle Wong's.

The latest addition to Vinings' eclectic dining scene, Uncle Wong's (like more than a few other restaurants in Atlanta) is located in a small strip mall behind a QT gas station. The dining room looks nothing like most Chinese restaurants in town. The walls have been colored Italian-bistro mustard; trendy track lighting swerves across the ceiling. One wall of the restaurant is decorated with paintings by children. Only one vaguely Japanese print in the corner provides any hint that Asian food is served here.

The kitchen, like the decor, caters to the American palate. "Taste of the Orient ... the possibilities are endless" reads the menu's front cover. Yet when I open it, I find their idea of possibility stems from the same tired list of dishes most of us grew up eating. It's General Tso Central.

Searching for the more unusual dishes on the menu, we primarily order from the list of chef's specials on both visits, with mixed results. The steamed halibut ($16.95) is beautifully presented, scattered with sliced scallions and bathed in an aromatic ginger-soy sauce. The gentle sauce lets the mild, clean flavor of the fish shine through.

The same cannot be said for the aforementioned snapper with the day-glow eyewear ($19.95), which comes in a sweet, gloppy "Hunan style" brown sauce. The fish itself is satisfyingly crackly on the outside and flaky on the inside, but appreciating its finer qualities under the sticky coating of sauce proves challenging.

Sweet is a recurring theme on the menu. A special of orange-flavored beef and shrimp ($16.95) offers two different preparations on the same plate, neither of which is very appealing. The beef, which is battered, fried and dunked in syrupy sauce, is so cloyingly sweet, my tongue feels like I just ate a whole box of caramel popcorn. Surrounding the beef are six shrimp, each of which have been tossed in an unsettling sauce that tastes like warm mayonnaise with the merest hint of Grand Marnier. We send this dish to the nether regions of the table, where it remains largely untouched through the remainder of the meal.

The Peking duck ($17.95 for half, $29.95 for whole) is served in the traditional manner, wrapped in mandarin pancakes with a dollop of plum sauce. Unfortunately, the pancakes, which customarily are thin and light, have the thick, chewy texture of tortillas. The whole thing comes off tasting like a fusion burrito.

If you're in the mood for fowl, try the tea-smoked duck ($12.95) instead. A mound of crispy, bite-sized pieces of duck arrives on a round platter. It's finger food. The morsels have a dusky, succulent taste that win praise from everyone at the table.

The appetizers, like the entrees, are hit and miss. There are precious few scallions in the scallion pancake ($3.25), and the crabmeat rolls ($5.25) are mostly fried batter, shredded carrots and mushroom slivers. The dumplings with the hot sesame sauce ($4.50) are tasty and shareable, as are the mussels in the black bean sauce ($5.95). The cold noodles ($4.75) with sesame sauce are (mercifully) less sweet than many I've had. They're yummy for breakfast the next day.

My friends and I have a fun time hunting for typos on the menu. One of my favorites is "Jade Mounting Scallops" ($14.95), a bland dish of sea scallops and vegetables in a light wine sauce that does not live up to its racy cognomen.

The servers fill our water glasses with a smile. They bring out chilled wine glasses and happily open the bottle of Riesling we've brought (the restaurant does not yet have its liquor license). The hosts thank us warmly as we are leaving. Everyone is so attentive and friendly that I feel guilty enjoying the food as little as I do.

If you're in the area, and you're in the mood for kung pao shrimp or sweet and sour chicken, Uncle Wong's is a well-dressed spot with reasonable prices and amenable service. But if, like me, you tire of the Chinese Greatest Hits and long for simple, balanced Asian fare without the glazed goop or the maraschino cherries, it's back to Buford Highway you go.