New restaurants often have soft openings before opening to the general public. Surrounded by family and friends, every layer of hospitality can be tested -- the kitchen, the front of house, and the management -- in an environment that simulates real-world dinner service, but with people who might be a little more understanding if the experience isn't quite yet perfect. But, of course, to feed people (often for free) and to pay employees isn't a small inconvenient expense. And even with a soft opening, it can still take a restaurant a month or two to really start humming with efficiency.
I knew going into tonight's dinner that Amber Li's Restaurant had only been open for a few days. This meant that there would likely be a few delays and perhaps the wrong soup being brought to the table, but I've developed a keen eye in spotting actual problems versus opening day jitters. Having learned of them from Lisa Abraham's weekly Food Notes section in the Akron Beacon Journal, I decided that a visit was warranted since she wrote that the menu consisted of, " traditional Chinese fare, sushi, hibachi-grilled and Japanese dishes." It was the traditional Chinese fare that caught my eye.
After work today, I hopped in the car and headed to 4195 Massillon Road, Green, OH 44685. The location of the restaurant was inside the Green Plaza, at the corner of Steese and Massillon Roads. There was ample parking in the common lot. If you wish to contact the restaurant, Amber Li's can be reached at 330-899-8856.
Here was a shot of the front entrance of Amber Li's:
Once inside the main door, I noticed the sushi bar located in the rear left of the restaurant with the remainder of the space broken up into tables and booths. I was surprised to see the restaurant only about one-third full as I figured a mention in Lisa's weekly food column would have packed the customers in. I was seated almost immediately, but noticed within moments of sitting down at my table that it had a severe wobble. I thought that perhaps as I settled in that I may have knocked something loose used to level it, but upon checking the floor, I found nothing. I decided to put up with the annoying wobble.
As I prepped my camera for the upcoming pictures, I began to people watch. It became immediately clear who the owner was, Amber Hazel. A native from China, she was the very stressed person running back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, her diction being very harsh on one side of the kitchen door and much softer on the other. I sat quietly at my table for about ten minutes before anyone acknowledged me and asked if I would like something to drink. It took another ten minutes before my waitress finally stopped at my table to take my order. Twenty minutes is a bit too long for a restaurant that is only one-third full, so I'll have to chalk that one up to opening week jitters.
Fortunately, when I was sat, the hostess left me with the menu to peruse:
Sadly, the "traditional Chinese fare" for which I was hoping to dine upon tonight ended up being the same Americanized Chinese cuisine served at every other Chinese restaurant in Akron. While I can appreciate Americanized Chinese cuisine from time to time, I find it to be rather boring and often times way too sweet. Never heard of Americanized Chinese cuisine, gentle reader? General Tsao's (aka Tso's) Chicken is a perfect example. This is a dish that doesn't exist in China and has been fine tuned for the American palate over decades since its introduction.
All that said, I have come across a few really excellent General Tsao's Chicken dishes over the years and I figured I would give theirs a try to see if Amber Li's version was at least worth seeking out. I was happy to see the menu indicated that all entrees came with either steamed rice or a California roll. When my server finally stopped to take my order, I asked about this unusual choice as I had never seen it before.
"No, it's just the steamed rice that is available. Amber changed her mind about offering a sushi roll."
That was too bad since I was actually going to order the California roll in place of my steamed rice. C'est la vie.
So, in order to try a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B, here is what I actually ordered:
* Shrimp Eggroll
* Miso Soup
* General Tsao's Chicken, extra spicy
* Steamed Rice
Here was what came out of the kitchen about fifteen minutes later. First up was the General Tsao's Chicken with Steamed Broccoli:
And a plate of what I had originally thought was a California roll, but was actually a Spicy Shrimp roll:
No Shrimp Eggroll and no Miso Soup. As for the appearance of the sushi, I figured that Amber had okayed the substitution of the California roll for the steamed rice since I had asked my server about it. Assuming that the eggroll and the soup would be coming out of the kitchen shortly, I decided to go ahead and dig in to what was already in front of me.
I started with the sushi. As I ate my first piece, several thoughts went through my head. First, the California roll was missing the avocado. All I could taste were cucumber and what I thought was imitation crab. Second, California rolls don't usually have a spicy sauce associated with them. I figured that might just be a personal touch at Amber Li's. Third, and most surprising, the sushi rice was utterly and thoroughly bland. I even dissected one of the six pieces on the plate and tried the rice just by itself. Yup, steamed white rice, nothing added.
Why is this point so important? Su-shi literally translates to "vinegared rice." Sushi rice is made by adding rice wine vinegar, sugar, and salt to the rice after it is cooked. This gives the rice a bit of acidity as well as seasoning from the salt. Soy sauce applied at the table would not have helped in this case. Curiously, while dissecting the sushi piece, I also noticed that the imitation crab looked an awful lot like a piece of shrimp. That's because it was! What I thought had been my accompanying California roll for my General Tsao's was actually my server thinking I had asked for a Spicy Shrimp roll instead of a Shrimp Eggroll. D'oh! The final check confirmed my suspicions.
On to the General Tsao's Chicken. It actually wasn't all that bad. The chicken was fried until crispy; the sauce was a bit oily and sweet and could've used a bit of acid to balance the other flavors. The steamed broccoli was a nice touch, but the carrots and green peppers the menu description promised were nowhere to be found. I had asked for the dish to be extra spicy and the kitchen's response was simply to add more whole chili peppers to the dish. Not being a complete moron, I moved the whole peppers to the side of the dish. Overall, I would say this dish was about a medium spicy and not particularly incendiary.
Having finished my sushi and chicken, I realized that nothing else was going to come out of the kitchen for me. After asking for and receiving the check, I finally understood what happened with the Shrimp Eggroll / Spicy Shrimp roll mistake; however, I had still been charged for the Miso Soup. I pointed the mistake out to my server, who quickly removed it from the bill. I could've contested the Spicy Shrimp roll mistake (as the sushi was $6 and the eggroll that I had ordered was only $2), since I didn't correct the error when I first detected it, I decided to pay for it. The check, with tax, came to just under $18.
While there were some components from tonight's meal that I enjoyed, there was a LOT that needs to be improved upon. Quickly. If Amber Li's is running this inefficiently and with this many mistakes a month from now, customers will tire quickly and decide to spend their dining dollars elsewhere. While my personal preference in Chinese cuisine tends more towards the authentic side, if Americanized Chinese cuisine is your bag, once Amber Li's gets it right, this might be the place for you. Since I can get these flavors much closer to home, other than visiting again in order to re-review it, I personally wouldn't make the drive from Akron.