The first meal at an unknown restaurant can be a gamble, but I left Cafe East convinced that I'd figured out how to tilt the odds in my favor -- order the bold and creative appetizers and build a feast of small plates. The pot stickers were filled with fresh shrimp and dusted with a browned layer of panko breadcrumbs. A light pink sauce that reminded me of a Thai peanut sauce was drizzled across Szechuan dumplings. The aptly named Screamer Oysters gave us fair warning about the searing heat of the five-spice broth tinged with coconut milk. The escargot in a pungent black bean sauce full of red peppers was mixed with mushrooms, okra and sweet roasted garlic. The mushrooms and okra were overwhelmed by the hot peppers, but the snails and the garlic stood their ground.
After the exciting appetizers, the two entrees we ordered were anticlimatic. A whole lobster in XO sauce, an often-secret recipe that was all the rage at Chinese restaurants in the 1980s, looked dramatic with the lobster head propped on the edge of the plate. The XO sauce, unfortunately, was flat and muddy. On the sweet-and-sour chicken, a moist cushion of dough separated the crisp exterior and the moist chicken inside, but the sauce delivered on the sweet while ignoring the sour.
On my second visit to Cafe East, I felt like the rules had been changed. This time, most of the appetizers fell on a scale between average to bad. The goat cheese egg roll was as satisfying as eating a log of goat cheese but not that much different. The regular egg rolls had a bright filling full of celery with nuggets of red Chinese pork, but the fried wrappers were greasy. Scallion pancakes that should have been crisp flat bread with a strong aroma of greens were limp and miraculously became tougher the more I chewed them.
There is no failsafe strategy at Cafe East, I learned. At every meal I found winners and losers amid the appetizers, soups and entrees, the pan-Asian, the fusion and the Chinese. The excellent kung pao chicken had dices of squash and zucchini mixed in among the peanuts. Cafe East's kitchen generally showed strong technique, and the chicken was perfectly cooked. Even well-cooked ingredients, however, can be destroyed by a bad sauce, like the fusion entree of lamb chops buried under a sugary lime sauce that looked like a melted yellow crayon.
Most dishes stayed close to a safe middle zone where the flavors were restrained and the taste of sugar predominated. One evening I took a group of friends and we shared several entrees. The caramelized walnuts in the honey walnut shrimp, a classic Cantonese dish, produced a complex, layered sweetness. The garlic beef, though, tasted like sugar. The orange chicken tasted like sugar, but with an edge of spice. Eaten alone, I might have enjoyed the well-cooked, high-quality ingredients. Taken together, the single note of sweetness that dominated an entire table of entrees made for a monotonous meal. We wondered if there was a shaker of sugar at the kitchen door and every item got a few generous sprinkles before being served.
Cafe East's sweet tooth served it well when it came to desserts. The addition of Asian flavors to traditional Western desserts, like the sesame, mango and ginger in the trio of creme brules, created a smooth transition from the Chinese and pan-Asian appetizers and entrees. A pyramid of chocolate mousse, haunted by an edge of smoky oolong tea with an orange madeleine buried in the center like a Pharaoh's treasure, was outstanding. At Cafe East, no strategy guarantees a jackpot of a meal. With most of the entrees priced between $10 and $15, it's not a high-stakes game. Some nights the appetizers and desserts paid off; other nights it was the main course and desserts. The kitchen can turn out strong dishes, but you might want to scatter your bets widely across the menu to find them.