fat dragon – first impressions

Fat Dragon is a Chinese-American restaurant that opened up in the old Stronghill Dining Company spot on Boulevard, in Richmond. On the grand, wide spectrum of such eateries, I’d say it’s more P.F. Chang’s than Peter Chang; that is, the restaurant is a lot more like a Chinese theme restaurant than even a faint attempt at authenticity. That’s not automatically bad, but it’s not very distinctive, either. And having checked out some of what they have to offer this past Thursday, it’s not particularly exciting to eat, either.

A few things first, though: Fat Dragon only just initiated a soft opening period on November 11th, and opened fully to the public on the night I dined. So I give some leeway to any food/service issues for a while. That being said, the service was very good, if a bit too enthusiastic; the excessive references to fuzzy terms like “local” and “organic” reminded me that this restaurant comes from the same folks who created The Blue Goat – where name-checking their suppliers sometimes felt more like marketing rather than recognition.

So on to the dining experience, after that verbose preamble. My initial thought walking in to the place was that it looks pretty cool inside. High, open ceilings, mostly spare decor, plenty of wood paneling in the right places. There are tons of large windows, too, since the building is at the corner of Boulevard and Leigh St. This makes for great views – if there was much to see other than River City Tattoo and Buz & Ned’s. The bar area seems to take up nearly half of the dining room between the bar itself and the smaller tables around it. Consequently, there were televisions around the bar tuned to sports – though the side where I ate was more conventional and TV free. I thought I caught a glimpse of a set-apart smaller dining room that’s likely intended for private parties.

Fat Dragon’s beer list (drafts and otherwise) is pretty nice with plenty of Virginia microbrews on tap alongside many other quality beers. Tons of taps (I forget how many – 24 maybe?) that I’m sure will see some frequent rotation. But I opted for cocktails that evening. These were both pretty good: The Lotus Blossom was made with sake, pear vodka, lychee srup, and muddled lychee fruit in the glass. I think mine was a bit on the strong side, but the flavors worked well together, and actually complimented the dish I ordered (I’ll get to the food soon). My second drink, The Candidate, was Makers Mark bourbon, orange and lime juices, and a “brown sugar cube” which I think was just a big ice cube rolled in brown sugar. It was a nice, comfortable drink I may replicate at home. So yeah – this joint might actually be a good place for an adult beverage on the Boulevard if you feel like it’s your kind of scene. I don’t know if it’s mine, but it’s close to home and the drinks are reasonably priced for how they taste and what’s inside.

The food is where I’m kinda down on this place, and that’s a lot more important to me (especially if I’m designated driver on a particular evening out). I started my meal with “Chef Zhao’s Bao Du Jour” – little crusty buns (hee hee) baked fresh every day, theoretically changing every day, too. The order came with two of them, served on a wasted Easter basket’s load of shredded iceberg lettuce, but they were pretty tasty – filled with some braised pork preparation. The bread itself was just the right amount of sweet, but a bit on the dry side. Not bad, overall, and worth trying different versions. I went for these because they were actually one of the most interesting starters on a menu that otherwise includes safe/boring options. Maybe they’re the best of their class (or maybe not), but I’m not really interested in vaguely “Asian” wings, an “Asian” take on fried calamari, and generic Asian Fusion versions of spicy fried shrimp, ribs, and dumplings.

I had a similar problem picking out my main course, but that was exacerbated by higher (for Richmond) prices. Lots of the mains push or exceeded $20. I suspect this is because of the purported quality of the ingredients – which is commendable – but many of these dishes are glorified Chinese-American staples. My choice was the Tangerine Beef. The menu says it’s “thinly sliced beef tenderloin wok fried crispy then tossed in a tangerine reduction”. It was an enormous pile of food. The beef slices appeared to have been pounded thin before having been bettered and deep-fried. This gave them quite a large surface area, and the default service is chopsticks unless you request Western utensils. I actually like using chopsticks (I even use them for my white rice), but these pieces of beef were too large for single bites and too heavy (and slippery with sauce) to hold in chopsticks for very long. So I compromised, using a knife to cut the meat into pieces I could otherwise grab with the chopsticks.

Eating mechanics aside, the flavor of the dish was okay, if unremarkable. Tenderloin is, uh, tender, but not a particularly flavorful cut of beef. That left all the flavor responsibility up to the batter and the sauce. It’s here that I should mention that the batter coating on my beef slices was nothing you could describe as crispy. I’m not sure if they fried them incorrectly, fried them earlier and allowed them to become soft, or tossed them in a gallon of the gloppy, indistinctly sweet/salty/tangy sauce ahead of time. I am sure, however, that the fried batter coating on my beef was mushy. Not in an off-putting way, just not what the menu described. This could be a first week kink – I certainly hope so. But the sauce? Aside from the excessive quantity, this viscous brown glop didn’t do much for me. It wasn’t disgusting (that’s the faintest of praise, I guess), but it had little more going on than the aforementioned basic flavors. The dish as a whole had some mild amount of spice from the dried chilies tossed with the sauce, and there was a circle of twisted orange slices around the bowl in which the food arrived. The portion size may have been intimidating, but the presentation was pleasant enough.

I would never assume the rest of the menu is like a single course after a single visit, but it does look like a mixed bag. They have their version of General Tso’s Chicken (“Chef Zhao’s Chicken”), ribs, fried shrimp, and stir fry, among others. The Tea Smoked Duck sounds good, as does the Spicy Tenderloin Hot Pot. I’ll see what it’s like the next time I’m in there. And there will be a next time, because my wife wants to try it.

Look, I’m not the type of person who likes to just slag restaurants in public. The dining scene is one of my favorite parts of Richmond, VA. But we have so many awesome places that I think it’s fair to start developing some higher standards. Fat Dragon is a potentially decent bar that needed a restaurant (silly VA law). And it picked a tired theme restaurant.