Lacquered-wood seats, moody techno music, and ruby-red walls give Mala Tang the feel of a cool bistro; a hot pot. Photographs by Scott Suchman
For this month's review, I went to Arlington to investigate the new Mala Tang (click here for the full review), where the gusty glories of Szechuan cooking are presented in a slick, lounge-like space to a moody techno soundtrack. This arranged marriage of East and West might well have been a disaster, a dumbed-down sort of fusion in which the worst aspects of East and West were showcased. It succeeds in large part because its unlikely collaborators know to step out of the other's way.
The restaurant is a joint venture, bringing together men from disparate worlds and backgrounds. Oren Molovinsky, the managing partner, comes most recently from Mie N Yu, the trendy Georgetown restau-lounge. The chef is Liu Chaosheng, who owns and operates Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church, Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot in Merrifield, and China Jade in Rockville—three of the area's premier cheap-eats destinations.
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Liu's menu is built around hot pot, with an array of Chengdu-style street foods for augmenting the experience. Hot pot is a communal experience, akin to sitting around the table eating fondue, but this being an upscale interpretation aimed at a mass audience, Mala Tang bids to individualize it, urging diners to order a pot each. Resist those entreaties, is my advice, and think about sharing a pot for two. It's a deceptively expensive meal for one once you accessorize it with various meats (my preference is for the thinly sliced, locally raised pork and the cleanly shorn prawns) and veggies (snow-pea leaves, wood-ear mushrooms).
Besides, that also leaves room for the various small plates, the real strength of the kitchen. I'm still thinking about the excellent dan dan noodles, the chicken dumplings and, perhaps most memorable of all, a plate of cartilaginously crunchy wood-ear mushrooms dressed like a simple salad.