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Archive for Friday, October 5, 2001

The Mag: Family Tree

October 5, 2001

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Where: 2620 Iowa; 841-6222

Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays; closed Tuesdays

Entrees range from: $4.50-$12.95

Family Tree

Plum Tree presents a variety of options for those seeking more than just Chinese food

Call it your father's Chinese restaurant.

Stepping into the Plum Tree is what I imagine it would have been like 40 years ago: C'mon kids, your mother wants to try Chinese food! She likes fish; she can get "Neptune's Catch in Bird's Nest." Now, I'm a beef man: beef with broccoli for me. You kids can try this "Volcano" thing -- hey, they even light it on fire! Cashew chicken for Aunt Louise here, and Uncle Bill -- you sure you don't want to have a go at this Japanese tempura? -- all right then, a T-Bone for you.

The Plum Tree is a sort of everything restaurant. In addition to the Chinese menu, there are smatterings of Thai, Japanese and American food. It's casual with a lunchtime buffet, but strives for atmosphere on a Friday evening with a singer/piano player -- that self-deprecating jokester sort who solicits requests with the caveat "I probably won't know it"-- lounging out tunes like "As Time Goes By."

The Plum Tree achieves the baseline of visual appeal, neither ugly nor beautiful, but I was disconcerted by constantly glimpsing myself in the wall of mirrors separating the main dining area from the buffet. If ever a space called for a rice-papered folding screen, this was it. Nonetheless, Plum Tree still manages to be inviting, particularly to a loyal patronage that enjoys it, flaws and all.

The most significant of these flaws was the uneven quality of the food. I found it pretty good one time and pretty bad another. Clearly it's imperative to order correctly, but the main way to gain such knowledge is through the bothersome method of trial and error. I'll try to help you out some:

On one visit, I chose relatively well. Tasty shredded chicken and vegetables filled the crunchy skin of the egg rolls, and this appetizer got an extra kick with

some very hot mustard. The Triple Delight sizzling rice soup (for two), was chock full of chicken, shrimp and vegetables. The broth was very mellow, but a dash of soy sauce will serve as a quick fix for those who like a heartier taste.

The ginger beef was fairly good. I thought it a bit light on the ginger slivers, but perhaps most taste buds require only a pinch of the strong flavor of fresh ginger. I quite liked the shrimp and scallops in hot garlic sauce, which expertly coupled a robust underlying flavor with a spicy accent. This dish also combined the seafood with a healthy helping of vegetables, so that it was one of the more rounded entrees.

Also good was a moo shu combination that included shrimp, pork, chicken and vegetables. Our waiter hand-rolled this mixture into the thin Chinese pancakes as we watched; I then slathered some more plum sauce on it and fully enjoyed these "Chinese burritos."

out of carrots. Very cute, even if I couldn't determine their proper place in the animal kingdom.

Variety of experiences

On the flip side, another meal I had was largely disappointing. We started with some standard egg drop soup, then continued with barbecued spare ribs that unsuccessfully tried to disguise the rather flavorless meat with a thin, overly tomato-y barbecue glaze. I found the crab rangoon only average: it had a nice crispy shell, but the heavily sweet cream cheese filling seemed light on crab and offered no contrast to the sugary dipping sauce. (To be fair, I've spoken to people who think it's great.)

For entrees, we tried the General's chicken from the Chinese menu and the gang-dang from the Thai choices. Neither one was very impressive. For some reason, the General's chicken avoided any of this dish's usual spiciness, tasting more like a sweet, orange-glazed chicken.

The gang-dang sounded good, with this "most familiar of the Thai curries" including green peppers, bamboo shoots and a coconut sauce. Unfortunately, I thought the sticky, sweetish sauce failed to isolate any of the promising flavors in the description.

Our service was friendly enough, but not always attentive. On one slow night we waited 20 minutes for our waiter to reappear so we could ask for a check; by the same token they actually bother to wrap your food at the table for you, rather than just shoving a box in your hands. And I liked our waiter, notwithstanding his somewhat brusque and cursory manner. I think something about us threw him off-kilter; we never did figure each other out, but it was fun trying, and I did tip him a bit extra for his distress.

Even with its imperfections, the atmosphere at Plum has an endearing, kitschy charm. If you can navigate the menu -- and stand to swallow your mistakes -- it can be fun.

Maybe take your parents.

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