It’s 6 o’clock on a weekday evening and Westborough’s after-work crowd is at Cheng Du’s bar. Two smartly dressed women, drinking vodka Mai Tais, remark to the bartender how much they like the new decor and the hot and sour soup. Kuo-Rung Tang, who owns the place with his wife, Sundi Fong, is happy that customers like the sleek new bar (named 157 Bin), the revamped main dining area and adjoining wing (called Akamon) featuring Japanese grill fare and sushi. It’s three distinct spaces under one roof.
Before last year’s renovations, they considered doing a less ambitious update to this location, in operation since the 1980s and at its current address since 1992. (Cheng Du also has restaurants run by family members in Stoughton and Mansfield.) But a mere coat of paint would only have signaled business as usual, or as Tang says, “new bowl, old soup.” The voluminous menu of American Chinese and Sichuan favorites — created by executive chef Paul Mustacchio — also reflects ambitious thinking.
The main dining space, serene with late-afternoon light, is a far cry from a bare-bones noodle joint in Chinatown. Our friendly server sets out hot tea, soft scallion-flecked rolls, and pickled vegetables. Double-cooked pork ($12.50) — sliced pork belly stir-fried with tender leeks and chili peppers— is savory and flavorful. The meat just needs additional braise time to achieve melting tenderness. On the “authentic Chinese dishes” section of the menu, a dining companion spies Chungking chili chicken ($14.25). “It usually comes with a big handful of chilies,” he says. It arrives with a scattering of peppers rather than a heap, but offers smoky, satisfying chunks of poultry. Dry-fried string beans ($9.50) are cooked tender-crisp, but could do with a less exuberant coating of sweet chili sauce.
The menu is peppered with retro favorites. We can’t remember the last time we encountered chop suey ($8.75). The version we order is a simple, stir-fried platter of snow peas, water chestnuts, ruffle-cut carrots, and baby corn. A dish called Dr. Jake Levin Pork ($13.25, named for a longtime customer) turns out to be minced pork stir-fried in hoisin sauce. It comes with four pancakes that, we swear, look and taste like flour tortillas. Once we get beyond that odd resemblance, we roll the meat in the wrappers and enjoy this tasty item. “Strange flavored chicken” ($12.95), with its thinly sliced white meat chicken, snow peas, and carrots in a brown sauce, is not at all unusual. When the restaurant first opened 32 years ago, Tang explains, customers found Sichuan peppercorn an odd flavor in the dish, and the name stuck. But we did not detect a whiff of the zippy, slightly numbing spice in the rendition we tried.
Chilean bass with ginger scallion sauce ($18.50) is a deliciously pristine steamed fillet with shavings of green onion, ginger, and a light drizzle of soy on a bed of steamed asparagus. (Another version with Sichuan sauce overwhelms the delicate fish.) Kung pao seafood delight ($17.50) is a saucy version of scallops, calamari rings, red bell pepper, and peanuts. We’re impressed that the seafood is perfectly cooked, if rather amply and sweetly sauced.
Tang’s love of wine is apparent. The bar alone features 46 glass pours. At last count, the restaurant list offered nearly 90 reasonably priced bottles. An impressive glass case of French and Italian bottles forms a wall of wine. You can’t miss it. The display is right next to the Keno lottery machine.
On a Friday night at dinner, tables are full. One customer has called in an order and walks out with a two-foot long box, heavy with take-out containers. We peer into the bar where cocktails still appear to be the drink of choice. Will Tang make wine lovers out of this Mai Tai crowd? He’ll certainly try, beginning with a series of wine tastings coming soon. Smart thinking.