Location: 4717 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-621-0133
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. Noon-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $2-5; entrees $6-10
Fare: Classic Chinese-American
Atmosphere: Asian Modern
Smoking: None Permitted
Bloomfield, unlike certain Little Italys we could name, isn't coasting on its past. Here, little old ladies still get up at dawn to shop the neighborhood's Italian groceries, and new Italian cafes and restaurants open alongside the stalwarts. But Liberty Avenue's vitality isn't limited to soprasetta and gelato. Over the past 10 years, a cluster of Southeast Asian restaurants has come to coexist comfortably within Bloomfield's dense commercial mix. As with their Italian neighbors, their success has sowed a fertile ground for new establishments.
The most recent addition to the mix is a Chinese restaurant called Wai Wai. And why not? After all, the noodle arrived in Italy via Marco Polo's explorations in China.
Wai Wai is simultaneously traditional in its culinary offerings and refreshingly contemporary in the setting in which they are served. The storefront, formerly the nondescript home of a pizza chain, has received a smart, modern update, with glass-shaded halogen lights, pale wood flooring, and a restrained display of Chinese art and artifacts worthy of a yoga studio or upscale boutique.
We found the menu to be almost as carefully considered as the décor. Eschewing the epic list of dishes that most Chinese-American restaurants proffer, Wai Wai sticks to a modest number of basics. There are fewer than 20 entrees offered with your choice of meats or vegetables, plus another 20 specials in which the specific meat, seafood or both are inherent to the recipe. And while most of the choices consist of old-school Chinese-American favorites like lo mein and moo goo gai pan, we spotted a few items that we didn't grow up with, including Singapore mai fun (a dish of stir-fried rice noodles) and sha cha (a meat-and-vegetable dish from the Gansu province of China).
We began with an appetizer of fried lemongrass wonton. True to their name, the crisp little dumplings were redolent of fresh lemongrass, with well-seasoned, pliant beef balancing the wheat wrapper. Traditional steamed dumplings proved just as satisfying. Tender wrappers were stuffed with an aromatic filling of gingery pork, while the superb dipping sauce accompanying both types of dumpling featured bright, fruity flavors playing off sweet, not salty, base notes.
Entrees at Wai Wai are served Western-style, in individual servings on attractive plates with rice on the side. Portions are very generous, although we ended up requesting more rice.
Jason's Happy Family, including an array of meats and seafood with vegetables in a brown sauce, was -- like many happy families -- an overall success despite some flaws and falters. The scallops lacked that shellfish's characteristic briny-sweet notes, while the shrimp were less succulent than one might hope. The vegetables were also uneven in size and doneness. But the chicken and beef were both above average, and the roast pork really shone. Jason has tended to avoid roast pork in Chinese food because it too often tastes twice-cooked, but at Wai Wai, the kitchen managed to achieve the barbecue flavor of char sui without sacrificing fresh flavor on the plate.
Meanwhile, Angelique's Mongolian beef was a satisfying mix of tender sliced steak with slivered onion, scallion and carrot in a thick brown sauce, which was both slightly sweet and spicy. Though rich, the sauce was also mild enough for the dish to be defined by the play between the hearty beef, zingy onions and sweet, earthy carrots.
Wai Wai offers a few grilled items, and we ordered grilled steak. Expert seasoning and charring of the meat yielded excellent flavor, and just a bit of brown sauce held things together. Our only complaint was that the cut -- perhaps a sirloin -- tended toward toughness, but not to the point of ruining the dish.
A dining companion's Cantonese chow mein arrived on a fried-noodle pancake, an appealing variation from white rice. The brown sauce and vegetable blend were reminiscent of those in the Happy Family, yet distinctly suited to this particular dish.
That, in the end, is Wai Wai's greatest strength: the ability to work expertly within the framework established by countless Chinese-American restaurants, yet serve dishes that, while assimilated, are distinctive enough to be a cuisine of their own.