I have come to the decision that the best part about dining isn’t really just the exceptional food possibilities or the atmosphere of the place you are dining in or even the company you keep while dining out. The best part about dining out is how all the possible good and bad factors of eating outside your own home come into play in unexpected ways. The saying “You get what you pay for” isn’t so much a negative criticism as it is a knock against the expected: Go to the same place time and time again and get the same experience time and time again, and that is the essence of getting what you pay for. A value and experience share a definition.
Some people want, nay, crave the expected, so they only go to a handful of places (if anywhere – I know plenty of people who are in a similar habitual loop with their home cooking as people who frequent one or two eateries) and quickly establish a routine that insures an edible safety zone.
While there is nothing wrong with this in a general sense, that type of behavior is not really my thing, and I’m guessing it would be safe to assume that the dozen or so lovely readers I have are similar to me in that way. For the food enthusiast, food lover, gastronomic adventurer, taste junkie, snack addict, dining explorer, or, even, shudder, the foodie, eating is more than survival obtained by chew and swallow and digest. Eating is a chance to take a chance, to take a risk, to venture reward in the face of loss, to produce, to consume, to experience through the realm of senses. For some, eating is akin to sex (indeed, these are the basic activities of mankind that utilize all five senses and to an enormous degree), for others, eating is the best and quickest way to learn about… anything.
I don’t really mean to ramble on and on about this, but it turns out I had a lot to reflect upon after a visit to Silk Road. This Chinese restaurant bears an unassuming front among the other shops and restaurants in Caste Village, but coming through its front doors is nothing short of being transported to its very specific world. The seating area is spread about and separated by partitions, wood and stone half-walls, beams, and warmly painted walls. Each little section is its own habitat, united in general theme, but invoking a feeling slightly different from the rest. Large canvas sconces of light come up from wall and float through holes in a blocks of false ceiling. It’s eye-catching, modern, with touches of the ancient heritage implied by the restaurant’s name. What’s more, it’s comfortable and well-lit, serving as a nice environment to a group of friends dining, which is exactly what we were.
My partner and I joined our friends Maureen and Brandon at the restaurant and were quickly seated with full water glasses, hot tea, and menus in front of us. Taking advantage of the good wine list, Maureen ordered a glass of Riesling. Brandon ordered a Yuengling. Hard pressed to pass up the opportunity when it comes along (which if you eat in as many Asian establishments as I do is rather frequent), I ordered a Sapporo. James stuck with the hot tea.
Admittedly, this was not the first time at the restaurant for myself, nor Maureen and Brandon. The two had held their engagement dinner there, at which I was present. Ever since that dinner we had been singing the praises to James, especially in reference to Silk Road’s substantial vegetarian menu. I’m always a little conservative with the Asian restaurants I rave about to him – he compares every place to his favorite Philly area restaurant, Kingdom of Vegetarians, and supposedly few are matches for this place (having not been there, I can only take his word for it) – but Silk Road inspired the confidence to rave and rave about the meal we had without fear of eventual disappointment on his end.
None of us were disappointed by our starters. Now we get into food porn territory:
Brandon went with a house salad that came topped with crispy egg noodles and a sesame-ginger dressing. The surprisingly typical iceberg salad worked really well with the few elements of Asian cuisine.
Maureen ordered a chicken egg roll, which, she raved, was stuffed with what was identifiably shredded chicken. I’m not as much of a fan of egg rolls as I used to be – too similar in too many ways in too many places – but this one seemed to be worth ordering.
The vegetarian hot and sour soup is meant for two people to split, which sounded like a plan to me and James. I seemed to enjoy it a little more than he did, but neither of us could deny that this was a packed hot and sour. Giant chunks of roasted tofu, fully present vegetables, bamboo shoots more than just tiny stick shreds, and warm, heavy broth that was just on the side of spicy. I’m an easy sell when it comes to hot and sour soup, but I think Silk Road’s is the best I’ve had locally. James had generally positive things to say, but did mention that he would try something else next time.
Thus far a smooth, pleasant dining experience with a fair share of minor surprises, not least of which was our server. How to best express this? She was… charmingly ambivalent to serving? Adorably haphazard? Infectiously inscrutable? No doubt about it, if a diner’s idea of perfect table service is a smiling, chatty, super attentive server, then that diner would be disappointed, if not angered by the aloofness of our waitress. But a weird mix of admiration – “Look how she doesn’t even try to give the dishes to their rightful owners!” – and genuine curiosity – “Did she call me panda?” – made our server one of the highlights of the meal. And we were never in want of hot water for tea or anything else we could ask for. We just expected it to be delivered in an offhanded manner.
Entrée time. On with the food porn!:
Maureen ordered the restaurant’s namesake dish, and it was every bit as delicious as a representative entrée should be. The sauce, although slightly tangy like a typical brown sauce, was slightly lighter and a bit more sweet. The broccoli were well cooked without being too soft and delivered a handy extra crunch to the fried chicken. Mo’s only complaint was a tad too much sauce. I usually say better an abundance than not enough, but I got an idea of what she was talking about with my dish…
I was tempted to once again order the Mystical Vegetarian, but went against habit and ordered the sweet and sour tofu. I thought the dish was uniformly excellent, but maybe a tad too sweet. The hearty slabs of tofu and big, crispy chunks of pepper and onion and carrot helped to diffuse some of the sweetness, but I needed a lot of rice to mellow it out. Not a problem with the dish, really, because James, who professes to love sweet and sour, thought it was great. It’s just a preference of mine that I should keep in mind more often.
Did I fail to mention how awesome the tofu was in this dish? Cause it was supreme.
I think I might have fared better with something more akin to Brandon’s mango chicken, which retained a sweetness from the present fruit, but without the sticky overpowering nature of the sweet and sour sauce. The mango was perfectly prepared, soft yet sturdy, and the chicken worked really well without any unnecessary breading. It was a good, clean dish with tremendous flavor.
Speaking of tremendous flavor…
…. Sorry, just had to wipe the saliva off my cheek. James ordered a black bean tofu hot plate that was the best dish of the night. No disservice meant to our other plates, but this was fantastic. The vegetables were fresh and crisp, there were just the right amount of black beans, and the tofu was crispy on the outside and tender inside. Everything in the dish offered something new to taste, but nothing was in combat. Rather, when everything was put together, beans and sauce on tofu with veggie, the end result was sublime.
By the end of our time at Silk Road, we were stuffed, satisfied, and (thanks to both each other and our server) sufficiently entertained. The surprises of Silk Road are big and small, but they are numerous, and the majority of what we experienced was a delight. It’s a definite argument in favor of the unexpected wonders of dining out, and I’m looking forward to what my future visits may bring.