The cliché -- not to mention the truth -- about ethnic restaurants is that the good ones are where the natives eat. Sure, its superficially easier to pick certain ethnic faces out of a crowd, but there is still no way, short of an interview, to know how steeped a person is in his or her native cuisine, or even which cuisine that might be.
Still, a solid base of Asian patrons gives one confidence in an Asian restaurant. On any given day at Orient Express, it is easy to observe this through the plate-glass windows which display the brightly lit storefront to Forbes Avenue. Inside, Asian and non-Asian diners alike take up their chopsticks with seemingly equal satisfaction.
The clichés stop there. Orient Express looks so professionally pulled together that we first took it to be a chain, but closer inspection revealed a more original vision: saffron-colored walls, botanical oil paintings, colored-glass pendant lights, and not a Chinese zodiac paper placemat in sight. The dining room has a light, cheerful, modern feel, and while the menu is typically epic, the mix of dishes is distinctive. Traditional Chinese cooking certainly dominates, but we were intrigued by offerings such as pickled mustard minced pork noodles alongside the more familiar Kung Pao and General Tsao. Theres also a curry section and a smattering of Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian specialties, as well as a selection of trendy bubble teas.
We tried to sample this breadth in our order of three appetizers and three entrees. For standard starters, we tried cold sesame noodles and steamed pork dumplings, throwing in a Vietnamese spring roll because -- well, because we could.
Unfortunately, none of these made a very good first impression. The dumplings were meaty and crunchy with water chestnuts, and the thick wrapper seemed homemade, but the overall effect was underseasoned and underwhelming. The noodles were served in a clump with a dollop of sesame sauce on top rather than tossed together. Finally, the spring roll, after an initially fresh and herbal bite or two, revealed a filling dominated by big pieces of iceberg lettuce. Overstuffed with springy leaves, the delicate wrapper strained and finally gave way, releasing the fillings onto the plate.
One bite of the Singapore noodles -- rice vermicelli with shrimp, barbequed pork, bean sprouts, onion and eggs -- demonstrated that Orient Express can ably span at least one non-Chinese cuisine. The super-fine noodles were bright yellow with a mild, dry mix of curry spices, and the variety of meats and veggies made for bites both tender and crisp. The only disappointment was the kitchens substitution of chicken for most of the promised barbeque pork.
We ordered our own substitution of beef in the stir-fried pork with Hunan sauce and seasoned greens. Once again, the dish we were served failed to reconcile with the menu, as the greens were nowhere to be found. Bright green broccoli was a welcome sight, however, and the florets were good for conveying plenty of the spicy brown sauce. But the dish was hurt by chewy, mediocre beef. Perhaps wed have done better with pork after all.
Last, and perhaps least, was squid stir-fried with ginger and scallions. The strips of squid were cooked to toothsome tenderness, but the ginger flavor didnt live up to its top billing; we bickered a bit about whether its trademark zing was subtle or merely absent. The brown sauces light body matched its light flavor, leaving not much to savor except for crisply sautéed strips of onion and bell pepper.
Orient Express has much to recommend it above some of its longer-standing competitors: The décor is modern and the atmosphere light and bright, while the menu offers some choices not always available elsewhere. But when the dish cant deliver what that menu promises, its a recipe for disappointment.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2 stars