One of the private rooms at Fine China in the Statler Hotel

One of the private rooms at Fine China in the Statler Hotel

Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer

Bronzed, glorious, borne slightly aloft on a wooden pedestal, the Cantonese roast duck makes a grand entrance at Fine China. As it should. This baby is the star of the menu, and preparations involve a fuss-filled three days of marinating, blanching, compressing and air-drying — not to mention roasting in a special duck oven.

Only a few are available to order each night, and the results look delicious: the whole bird carved into morsels of breast meat, the dainty legs left whole to pick up and nibble, the prize crispy skin cut into neat squares and all of it garnished with branches of red and green shiso, like a floral centerpiece.

It's a dramatic moment, for sure, and Fine China is good at drama. It starts when you step into the restaurant, just off the midcentury lobby of the Statler Hotel, and enter a Sino-American fantasy of rough-hewn beams, dim lighting and dark florals. Sliding partitions with paned glass separate a wall of private dining rooms like a row of Chinese shopfronts. A low-slung velvet banquette is made for lounging with a cocktail — say, a Tigers Eye, a mix of bourbon, black-tea-infused vermouth, Gran Classico and bitters. It's served in a wooden sake box garnished with a big ice cube, a wheel of dried citrus and a fresh flower. Gorgeous. Until you try to drink it and everything comes crashing to the corner of the box.

The Tigers Eye cocktail

The Tigers Eye cocktail

Michalene Busico/The Dallas Morning News 

During the day, sunlight beams through the front windows, yet the communal table beside them is mysteriously empty, until you learn diners have been known to roast under the heat. Blinds will be installed soon, the manager says. It's a "work in progress." Never mind. The walnut bar and dining room feel cool and secluded, and they are the real draws.

Before Fine China, chef Angela Hernandez headed the kitchen at Top Knot, the casual Japanese restaurant above Uchi that has since become Uchiba. Her résumé includes restaurants owned by Gordon Ramsay, José Andrés and Paul Liebrandt. But this is the first time she has cooked Chinese food, or more accurately, a facsimile that she calls "modern American Chinese cuisine."

Her menu of dim sum and cold dishes, rice and noodles, and larger dishes like the duck has some interesting ideas and a few items that deliver on the promise, such as delicate shu mai dumplings set off by a complex, fermented chile oil and chilled dan dan noodles striped with an indulgent pork ragu, peanut sauce and green onion.

Chef Angela Hernandez prepares Cantonese roast duck.

Chef Angela Hernandez prepares Cantonese roast duck.

Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer

But with too many of the other dishes, a certain discomfort shows. "Work in progress" is something you'll hear over and over again at Fine China, whether you're asking about the sake list, the tea service or even the duck.

Yes, the duck. Our $75 diva is barely warm. The "crispy" skin is soft. The flesh is dry. And instead of the thin pancakes traditionally served with the bird, there are fat steamed buns the size of Parker House rolls. Tear one open, tuck in slivers of duck, julienned cucumber, green onion and some good house-made hoisin sauce, and you're left with a bready bite that might be stuffed with anything.

Xiao long bao — soup dumplings — are delivered hot in a steel steamer with chopsticks, a soup spoon and a warning: Be careful, the waiter admonishes, to pick up the dumpling, place it on the spoon and eat it all in one bite. But that bite releases no burst of hot broth, just ground pork filling and an ooze of meat juices with an overpowering aroma of ammonia.

Fried chile prawns, seasoned with Old Bay and garlic, are perfectly crisp and juicy, but taste mainly of salt. Black garlic noodles are overcooked and sludgy. Eggplant mapo tofu has none of the melting richness you'd expect, with underdeveloped flavors and little heat. On one visit, a bowl of smacked cucumbers tastes like pure vinegar, on another the acid is dialed back enough for the vegetables to come through.

Two of the best dishes, a kohlrabi citrus salad with golden beets, apple and a light cashew dressing, and Wagyu beef tartare, with some surprising tropical flavors from Thai chile, green mango and mint, have little to do with Chinese cooking but have a clarity and focus that other dishes don't.

Chilled dan dan noodles

Chilled dan dan noodles

Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer

There are just two desserts, a glass cup of soft-serve ice cream drizzled with a miso caramel sauce, and golden mantou, in which the bready steamed buns return, this time oily out of the deep fryer, dusted with sugar and served with dulce de leche.

On the weekends, the business-lunch crowd gives way to a cocktail-fueled party scene. It's dark and noisy, and the tabletops are crowded with sweet, showy drinks like the Sino-French Connection, a soju concoction that involves a French press and a load of fruit and fresh herbs.

The sake list offers 11 bottles, plus two more on tap. And the short but diverse wine list includes some great surprises, such as Dr. Loosen sparkling riesling from Germany and Gros Ventre Cellars white blend from California, for $12 and $13 by the glass.

But ask for a sake recommendation, and you'll find no one in the house can discuss the list or even make distinctions among the offerings on tap. And with hefty markups on wine by the bottle — for example, a Vietti arneis that's $23 at Pogo's is $65 on the list, while an Orin Swift Abstract red blend that's $30 at Total Wine is $95 at Fine China — there should be a sommelier on the floor, or at the very least, better training for the staff.

The gougy wine list, the absence of a somm, the missteps in the kitchen -- it all adds up to what feels like carelessness, for the cuisine and its culture, and for the diner who's paying a premium to eat Chinese food in a plush environment. In the middle of a meal here, my thoughts turned to the bright lights and vinyl booths of First Chinese BBQ in Richardson, where an exquisite roasted duck can be had for just $24.35. There is room for both traditional and fusion restaurants in this town -- but at that moment, I was wishing for vinyl over velvet.

Fine China

Rating: One star

Price: $$ (dim sum $5 to $25; cold dishes $7 to $16; rice and noodles $12 to $16; large dishes $17 to $45; whole Cantonese roast duck $75; dessert $7)

Service: Chatty and attentive, but clueless about sake and wine

Ambience: The restaurant off the lobby of the midcentury Statler Hotel has been transformed into a Sino-American fantasy, with rough-hewn beams, dim lighting, dark florals and antique teacups evoking Chinese storefronts or perhaps an opium den. Weekdays, it's all about the business lunch; weekends, it busts out into a cocktail-fueled party scene. Dishes are made for sharing, and there is plenty of seating for large groups, including private rooms.

Noise: Loud (81 decibels)

Drinks: Sweet, showy cocktails; sake; beer; and a short but diverse wine list (watch out for high prices by the bottle). A clever iced-tea menu for nondrinkers.

Recommended: Pork and shrimp shu mai, chilled dan dan noodles, Wagyu beef tartare, kohlrabi citrus salad

GPS: Until the restaurant hangs window blinds (we're told they are coming), avoid the sunny tables in front, where diners have been known to slowly roast. In the lounge and dining room, get a table under a light unless you're OK with not seeing what you're eating.

Address: 1914 Commerce St., Dallas (in the Statler Hotel); 469-320-8996; finechinadallas.com

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Health department score: Not inspected at publication time

Access: Enter through the Statler Hotel lobby to the restaurant; everything is on one level.

Parking: Valet parking at the hotel (using a mobile phone for notification), $6 with validation; limited street parking free after 6 p.m.

Ratings Legend

4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)

3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)

2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)

1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)

No stars: Poor (Not recommended)

Noise Levels

Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.

60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.

70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.

80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.

86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.

Prices

Average dinner per person: 

$ -- $19 and under

$$ -- $20 to $50

$$$ -- $50 to $99

$$$$ -- $100 and over

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