Glad to Meet You

Asian medicine influences many dishes at Gingko Tree.
Peter Calvin

"Hi, my name is Arthur King. I'm one of the owners of Gingko Tree China Bistro in Flower Mound. We have been open since May 24, and we are very excited to be here. As far as information goes, we are a Chinese Restaurant...We have a lot of different menu items from our real famous Gingko Tree spicy chicken to your herbal teas."

It might seem odd to highlight herbal teas in a quest for an alcoholic beverage permit, but there are no doubt many strange and un-wonderful things budding restaurateurs must perform to acquire the necessary paper to get into business.

Arthur King's presentation before the Flower Mound Planning & Zoning Commission on September 22 had some impact, though. When we visited Gingko Tree the week of November 8, it had just obtained its liquor license. Though we're not sure which hurdle this Flower Mound commission played in the drive to serve hooch, there is obviously some considerable lag time between bureaucratic licks and therapeutic nips.

Because Gingko Tree had just turned legal, it had no inventory; this despite a restaurant interior dominated by a handsome bar with lots of glassware. But we did get to sip some complimentary merlot from Lilliputian glasses; vessels so tiny they easily could have been deployed for a tasting flight of NyQuil impersonators. Thus, we perpetually harassed our server for refills before she dropped off a jug of the stuff and said: "Please help yourself."

You could quibble over this gesture; that this bottle plopping was a bit casual--maybe even crass. But that would pervert the truth.

Our dessert episode explains the point more clearly. To cap our meal, we ordered "fire on ice," seasonal fruit (ours was mango) cluttering a dollop of house-made vanilla ice cream. The motley lump is doused with Everclear and subjected to a Bic flick. "Don't blink, or you'll miss the fireworks," warns the menu.

We didn't have to blink. The flames collapsed before the scoop arrived at our table, initiating another frenzy of Bic flicks. These failed, which drew co-owner Robert Zeng to our table. Zeng was armed with a squirt bottle loaded to the neck with Everclear. (Bureaucrat brainteaser: Was this dessert legal before the license arrived?) He put a good squirt on the scoop and even shot a little stream into the spoon my dining companion was clutching. This time, the flick erupted into coiling cobalt blue quivers, like the undulating belly of a lap dancer.

This, too, could be construed as crass. But like the wine delivery, this tactic in service of a gimmick didn't come off as tacky. These were tight little episodes of nurturing sincerity, genuine "damn, we're thrilled you're here" gestures. You can taste that a mile away.

Zeng is an amusing fellow. Born in China's Szechwan province, he came to the United States some 20 years ago, settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he practiced Asian medicine and served on the board of directors for the American Association of Oriental Medicine. Zeng has zinged the Gingko Tree menu with his medicinal expertise. You can find it under the heading "seasonal specials and healthy choice."

The section includes dishes like wolfberry chicken, which is crafted with berries from a North American shrub related to honeysuckle. Zeng says wolfberries enhance energy. Gingko shrimp is seasoned with seeds from the gingko, a Chinese ornamental shade tree. Merriam-Webster's describes the seeds as containing "foul-smelling yellowish fleshy seed coats." Zeng says the seeds enhance memory and promote urination. Mother Nature is so zany.

But if the thought of yellowish and foul-smelling seeds spooks you, the lychee nut shrimp should have you jumping. Crouched in a small dish and bathed in a smooth white sauce blended from wine, white pepper and ginger, the firm and briny stir-fried jumbo shrimp get their sweetness tweaked into prominence by these nuts, which resemble scallops: oval fruit with a sweet whitish flesh. Zeng says the nuts are good for the skin.

Venture from the medicinal portions of the menu and you'll be confronted with typical Chinese restaurant fare. But you'll be struck by the agility of each dish. Though the lettuce wraps arrived with browning blemishes along the rib of a single leaf, the leaves were supple, and the filling, a blend of chicken, rice noodles and scallions in a hoisin sauce pestered with cooking wines and cinnamon, was addictively savory.

And though the fire was subdued, firecracker dumplings still managed savory sparks. These supple pouches, resting tranquilly in a light chicken stock jacked-up with soy and garlic, were balanced with a well-seasoned depth.

Zeng says his mission with Gingko (he's pulled back on his medicinal gig to give restaurateuring a go) is to reflect the shifts stirred by modernity in this hoary cuisine. "If you walk into the majority of Chinese restaurants, their menu has been carried on for years and years," he says.

But like every other space on the globe infected with the "fusion" buzz, China is surrendering to technology and the ubiquity of markets and culture. The great regional cuisines of China are blurring, with aspects of some absorbed by staples of others.

Texas, of course, is not a region of China--at least not yet. So how does one explain the cowboy wonton soup, a dishwater-bland little slurp with turkey wontons, chicken slices and spinach? Zeng says the soup is so named because the wontons bear a striking resemblance to 10-gallon Stetsons.

Hot and sour soup was far more rewarding. Thin and fluid instead of thick and unctuous, the soup had an enlivening edge hewn with a tomato base zinged with rice vinegar and a rich, earthy brown Chinese brewed vinegar.

But no Chinese restaurant could be called such without fried foods, and Gingko Tree has them in a restrained number of entrants. Spicy calamari, corkscrew-cut body tubes, are lightly coated in flour and cornstarch and flecked with kosher salt and black pepper. The meat is tender, but has backbone--not a bit like the crusty linguini impersonators swamping fried calamari plates across Texas, maybe even the world.

Dragon sesame chicken is addicting. Lightly battered, yet brittle, the quick-fried and moist chicken chunks are greaseless and delicately sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Gingko Tree brushes brilliance when it goes minimalist. Pearl River splash is a piece of fresh fish (flounder for us) with a lightly aromatic simple treatment of ginger and scallions. The fish is moist, flaky and dense, but with a residual sweetness that no doubt would have been mauled in clumsier hands.

Gingko gets novel, too. Ants climb tree, rice noodles infested with stir-fried ground pork, bell peppers, scallions and tiny broccoli florets, really does saddle up to its name: Those pork grains looked like little worker marchers crawling on vines of noodle. Yet the sauce was a bit wimpy. Zeng says this traditional Szechwan dish comes with considerable punch, but at Gingko it is toned down for Texas audiences. Go figure.

Yet whatever bugs may be gumming up the bistro gears here, they are minor. In fact, to plagiarize King, we were "very excited to be here."

2704 Cross Timbers, No. 118, Flower Mound, 972-724-8100. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$

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