Restaurant review: Take a culinary tour of northeast China at nifty new Blue Top

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Crab Rangoon and General Tso’s chicken might be fun to eat, but they’re about as Chinese as a cheeseburger. Dishes like these owe their popularity to Chinese restaurants catering to American palates enamored with sweet and deep-fried things.

Lately, a wave of interesting places that includes stylish new Blue Top are providing delicious proof that Chinese food in Columbus is increasingly varied, authentic and sophisticated. Unlike any others I know of, Blue Top showcases the cooking of Dongbei.

Comprising three northeastern provinces in China, Dongbei (aka “Manchuria”) borders Russia and Korea. Like its neighbors, the people of Dongbei enjoy potatoes, wheat products and vinegary dishes.

Blue Top hides these roots in plain sight. It makes claims of “fusion cuisine” and “new Chinese cooking,” and Dongbei isn’t specifically mentioned, but abundant classics from there arise when reading between the lines of its menu.

When I noticed several Dongbei favorites while scanning photos on the waiter-supplied iPad, my server told me that he, the chef and others employed at the restaurant indeed hailed from there.

So settle into Blue Top’s modern and handsome interior, where orange cloth-covered booths and tables with shiny silver fabric chairs provide seating. Order a drink compatible with this cuisine from the limited, better-than-nothing little beverage list (Tsingtao beer and Chateau Ste. Michelle riesling are offered), and get your Dongbei feast on.

Two uncommon salads set the representative tone with their “family-style” portions plus compelling flavors and textures. The hardly described (that’s routine here) Cold Noodle with House Special Sauce ($11) is a Northeast China mainstay that layers carrot and cucumber matchsticks atop wide, transparent mung bean noodles. The salty dish contrasts amusingly slippery pasta with crisp veggies, and is tied together by a spicy, rich and nutty dressing that tastes like sesame and fermented black bean pastes spiked with chili.

The aptly named Tiger Bites ($9) is one of the more aggressive and refreshing green salads around. This aromatic onslaught tosses snipped cilantro, scallion and jalapenos in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic.

A great match for it is a huge and soothing bowl of Braised Pork Stew with Vermicelli ($14). Here, “vermicelli” means wide and long, translucent mung bean noodles with a delightful “chew.” These, along with astoundingly tender pork nuggets, baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms are dunked in a rich broth with anise notes and tingly citrus accents from five-spice powder and Sichuan peppercorns.

Remarkably tender meat reappears in the Cumin-Scented Sliced Beef with Onion ($14). Succulent, slender slices are smoky from a high heat stir frying with a ton of sweetening red onion and green peppers. Cilantro, cumin and chili oil add pizzazz and point to Mongolian influences (Inner Mongolia, where this would be made with lamb, borders Dongbei).

In its most commonly seen American form, sweet and sour pork is food court fare with dubious connections to China. But the dish’s roots run deep into Dongbei, where it’s called guo bao rou. Unlike its chunky cousin bathed in sugary fluorescent red sauce, Blue Top’s more authentic Guo Bao Pork ($15) is crisp-battered, thinly sliced meat in a tangy caramel sauce.

Golden Sweet Potatoes with Caramel ($13) is another telltale Dongbei dish, and one I’ve never seen in Columbus. Eating the dessert-worthy mountain of crispy tubers sprinkled with sesame seeds is like a game. After plucking an orange spud from its molten sauce, you plunge it into the accompanying bowl of water. This hardens the hot caramel into a brittle candy shell that’s entertaining and delicious to crunch.

You can also get Crab Rangoon and General Tso’s chicken here. With so much else to try though, why would you?

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Blue Top Asian Fusion

1178 Kenny Centre Mall, Upper Arlington