By Suzanne Parker
We were sort of lured to Grain House on Northern Boulevard in Little Neck under false pretenses, not that we have anyone to blame but our selves.
A friend insisted we must try their, xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings, a Shanghaiese specialty. We leapt to the erroneous conclusion that this was a Shanghaiese establishment, only to find, on arrival, that it bills itself as Szechuan. To add to the confusion, the owner is from Beijing, and the name, Grain House, references northern culinary traditions. For a nanosecond we questioned the authenticity of a Chinese restaurant mixing and matching regional styles. Then after mentally giving ourselves a forehead slap, we realized that so-called American restaurants feel no compunction about borrowing from an unlimited palette of regional and international cuisines. Why should a Chinese restaurant be held to a different standard?
This is a restaurant that knows how to make both Chinese and non-Chinese diners feel at home. Our host asked us a question that we were never asked in a Chinese restaurant before: “Would you like your meal brought in courses or all at once?” “As they are ready—pretend we’re Chinese,” we replied. Usually ethnic Chinese restaurants bring dishes in a random, overlapping order, while those that cater to Westerners observe courses. We were delighted, for once, to be asked our preference.
The soup dumplings that lured us here were more or less up to snuff. They delivered a satisfying squirt of intensely flavorful broth with each bite, but the wrapper was too thick. We tried a couple of universal crowd pleasers—hot and sour soup, and cold sesame noodles, both decent. The Mapo tofu was silky with plenty of complexity, but didn’t deliver as much tingle and after burn as we’ve come to expect.
Grain House’s rendition of tea-smoked duck is not duck smoked not just with any old tea, but specifically “Salted Duckling Smoked with Lauraceae Tea.” We’re not sure that we could distinguish it from Lipton’s after the smoking is done, but it was a fine iteration of the Szechuan fave.
Where Grain House really shines is with the harder-to-find dishes. Wood ear salad is a vinegary cold salad of tree ear mushrooms with the addition of hot peppers to get your attention. Signature Stir Fried taught us what to do with the garlic scapes (the flower stalks of the garlic plant) we’ve been hoarding in the back of our fridge from our garlic patch since June. Here a pile of them was put to good use, stir fried with a mélange of shrimp and sea food.
The menu category absolutely not to be missed is “Crust of Cooked Rice.” These are a bunch of dishes served over blocks of something resembling Rice Crispy treats. They are formed from scorched rice from the bottom of the pan, called guoba. We opted for the shrimp version, which was a stir fry of shrimp and Shanghai cabbage accompanied by a separate bowl of broth to be dumped over the dish. This was comfort food at its finest. Can’t help but love it.
The Bottom Line
Grain House hits the sweet spot between ethnic Chinese restaurant and neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Its delicious food has universal appeal. There is even an “American Chinese Food” menu category for the resolutely timid eater. It’s a something-for-everyone kinda place. Every nabe should have one of these.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo