East of Beijing across the Bohai Sea, the megacity of Dalian anchors a peninsula that curves and dangles like some giant uvula. In Berkeley, a restaurant named for the city feels thoroughly solid, even a little ponderous. It’s a semi-dark space filled with hard surfaces and scant natural light, walls the color of duck-egg yolks, and a big-tile floor whose patina looks all too much like actual wear. The decor may be new, but Da Lian has the slightly stodgy feel of a restaurant that’s been around forever.
Yet five months after opening, Da Lian feels overlooked. Maybe it’s suffering the reputation of the last tenant, an undistinguished Cantonese place called Yangtze River. Maybe the owner is playing it too safe. Instead of focusing on the dishes of his home city, Benli Zou has packed his menu with the Cantonese stir-fries he learned to box up for the takeout crowd during his twelve-year stint at King Yen on Piedmont Avenue. Still, the menu contains just enough unusual dishes from the north of China to warrant an hour in Da Lian’s prim dining room.
A dish called lamb with Chinese pickled cabbage contains a solid chunk of Zou’s northern soul. Be warned: This is an enormous soup, easily enough for six. The thin, pale broth comes stocked with lamb shreds colored a pale, corned-beef pink, with skinny glass noodles and a welter of house-pickled napa cabbage.
A musky, mutton-fat taste suffused the broth — it was up to the cabbage to cut it. Pickled in-house for four months, the latter was sauerkraut-tangy but without sauerkraut’s Camembert-rind pungency. The cabbage’s acidity reined in the lamb and amplified it, the way vinegar tames boiled pigs’ feet. If the sourness seems overwhelming by the second or third bowl, add some splashes of soy sauce — it smoothes out the flavors a bit.
You can get a variation on this dish, a semi-veggie version that swaps oysters and tofu for lamb. The oysters were delectable, firm, ruffled and mild tasting, the size of Eastern oysters like bluepoints (Crassostrea virginica) instead of the huge, custardy, strong-tasting Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) we’d feared. But the pickled cabbage walked all over the subtle flavor of the oysters, and the tofu never even stood a chance. The oyster version of Zou’s soup is less about balancing dissonant tastes than hyping subtle textures.
Dalian is as close to Pyongyang as it is to Beijing, and you could argue that Zou’s pickled cabbage is the introverted cousin to Korea’s kimchi. There’s a similar comparison to be made regarding the chef’s fondness for big blasts of raw garlic, a taste that runs through the Korean kitchen. Shrimp-and-chive boiled dumplings were a kind of garlic double happiness. The amiably doughy, pierogi-like turnovers (Dalian was a Soviet city in the decade after World War II) contained a loose aggregate of chopped shrimp and subtly garlicky Chinese chives — lots of them. But it was the dipping sauce that ignited garlic fire. It began as the usual blend of soy, vinegar, and sesame oil, but was topped off with so much rough-chopped garlic it actually looked craggy. Call it a guilty pleasure: thrilling while it lasts, but on BART the next morning you’ll be the seatmate nobody wants.
House special smoked pork had a big blast that had more to do with smoke and dried chiles than the acid burn of garlic. It’s a Sichuan dish: Stamp-size squares of house-smoked belly meat radiated a rich, bacony sweetness and a sharp smack of chile heat. They were stir-fried with big hunks of European leek, a Western adaptation, but delicious here: The dark, outer layers were slightly stiff and waxy, with a mellow onion-stalk taste. Cabbage squares and quartered mushrooms were swabs for the stir-fry’s smoky, searing juices.
But if those dishes had sharply defined flavors, others were muddier. That’s not to say they weren’t satisfying. Braised whole fish had a dark, sugary sauce it wore like a turkey leg blanketed in molé. Under the sweetened bean sauce, the rockfish was fresh and meaty, a berm of white protein flaking into shaggy chunks at the touch of chopsticks. Another northern dish, sesame bread with green onion, was so homey it never rose above clunky. Folded around sliced scallions, the thick disc of housemade dough developed a richly teak-colored top crust. It was chewy as an underdone Brown ‘N Serve roll, and it breathed the sour, stale-beer tang of baker’s yeast. Good for a bite or two, more if you used the bread as a sop for some vivid pan sauce.
After the pure-mutton scent of the pickled-cabbage soup, Mongolian lamb was a disappointment. The meat was heavily flocked with a mixture of egg whites and cornstarch, a process called “velveting.” The Chinese technique keeps meat fibers soft by protecting them from a wok’s fierce, stiffening heat. But here the thick coating muffled the meat’s flavor, essentially gelding the frisky, petting-zoo pungency of the lamb.
Seafood deluxe and tofu clay pot had flavors as muddled as the syntax of its English translation. Pieces of cuttlefish, scored and curled up into pinkie-size pieces, greenlip mussels on the half shell, and big scallops splitting open from long cooking at high heat — nothing sparkled with the ravishing freshness we’d hoped for. Instead of serving as a dark, complex foil to the sweetness of seafood, black-bean sauce made already sketchy flavors veer off into irredeemably murky. It was the low point of three meals at Da Lian. Very likely the result of creeping turnover in a restaurant working way under capacity.
But the crispy smoked tea duck went a long way to restore our faith in the kitchen. The bird spanned a long, oval platter, a snaking diagonal tapering at both ends. The skin was actually crispy, a bloom of tiny blisters spread over golden-caramel skin. It covered velvet flesh infused with Chinese five-spice powder: moist without even a hint of tasting warmed over, a brilliant little taste of succulence. A solid hit on a menu that contains various degrees of misses.
So here’s a strategy for wrangling an interesting meal here. Avoid the flagrantly Cantonese — frankly, that’s most of the menu. Start with the signature northern dishes and fill in cautiously with Sichuan stuff. And keep in mind that you really shouldn’t leave Da Lian without the mingled taste of lamb fat and sour cabbage receding in your mouth.