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Spring Roll Dynasty

by B.A. Nilsson on June 22, 2011

Spice Dragon
We were waiting for spring rolls. Not any spring rolls, but the legendary ones we all discovered at Kim’s Dragon, a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant on Route 20 heading into Pittsfield from the west. Kim’s closed, reopened, closed, reopened as Dragon Steakhouse, then closed again. It promises to reopen. Meanwhile, a sign on the door directs you to Spice Dragon in downtown Pittsfield.

We’d been waiting a while. It wasn’t surprising, because we hit the restaurant along with a dozen or more other diners who beelined there right after the finish of a late matinee around the corner at Barrington Stage. We all were seated in a quick, orderly fashion, but a lot of orders went into the kitchen at once, and the place is relatively new.

“Spring rolls? We can’t keep up with them,” says Thang Huynh, co-owner of the place and son of the original Kim’s Dragon owners. “It’s our most popular item.”

Yet, we had an attentive server who faced the problem head-on. “I know you’ve been waiting,” she said. “I know how long you’ve been waiting. When we put in an order, the time it was placed is printed right on the check. I just want you to know that I’m on top of this, and you’ll get them as soon as they’re ready.”

We weren’t particularly antsy because we accepted a languorous pace as our fate when we chose to be seated. But having a server who’s aware of the problem and lets you know she’s looking out for you makes all the difference. By the time ours arrived, the place was teeming with spring rolls. That fryer was working at capacity.

Is a revisit to anything good ever as good as you remember it? Spice Dragon is barely open, and already the controversy swirls on the you-review-it websites. But those are civilians weighing in. I’m a seen-it-all pro here to tell you that. . . well, they’re different. A little larger, wrapped a bit differently, but still a far cry better than what you’ll usually find. Part of it is the filling, which uses ground pork and shrimp as a binder for a host of Asian ingredients, the subtle flavors enhanced by a mild dipping sauce, a crunchy contrast offered by the bright flavors of a slaw served alongside. Nine dollars gets you two fat rolls, enough to split with a companion.

Spice Dragon occupies a large space of several rooms and multiple floors that asserted an Asian identity a while back as Spice, offering a high-end menu that didn’t grab the needed customer space. Jae Chung eased it in a more casual direction as Jae’s Spice, but financial success remained elusive. “Joyce Bernstein and Larry Rosenthal own the building,” says Huynh, “and rather than close it down and put everyone there out of work, they called me in to develop a new restaurant there. We turned it around in eight days, simplifying the menu while putting a lot of the Kim’s Dragon favorites on it.” He is working with his brother, Huy Van Huynh, with whom he also owns the restaurant 20 Railroad Street in Great Barrington.

Thus you find a Vietnamese shrimp salad with a ginger-lime dressing ($10) alongside Caesar salad ($9) on the appetizer list, where chicken satay ($8), crispy calamari ($10), arugula salad with goat cheese and tomato ($9) and seaweed salad ($7) also look inviting.

Soups include traditional dumpling ($7), miso ($4) and hot and sour ($6), and we found the last-named to be a much more complicated blend than is typical, working tomato into a brew that offers a soft but satisfying contrast of flavors.

Then there’s an incongruous listing of flatbreads—small pizzas, really, although they shy away from the term—ranging from the simple tomato-and-mozzarella-based Margherita ($13) to concoctions of chicken and bacon ($15), mushrooms and caramelized onion ($15) and a market-priced “chef’s inspiration.”

Which makes this a good place to note that all of the above, along with a selection of burgers ($15 each) is available from 10 to midnight, Thursday through Sunday.

Eschewing her usual chicken dinner, my wife opted for caramelized sea scallops ($24). She was warned that the mushrooms, atop which those scallops are presented, are worked into a spicy compote that might exceed a (she didn’t put it this way) coward’s heat tolerance, and damned if the old lady didn’t persevere. I tasted it—the scallops were medium-sized, plump and gloriously glazed—and found the mushrooms easily manageable, but I’m not a good barometer of such things, as I’ll eat raw habaneros just for fun. But Susan decided that any challenge to her delicate palate was more than offset by the citrus-tinged fennel that’s also part of the dish.

So I got the chicken ($17). It was a good choice because it’s served with a lemongrass-intense sauce that intensifies the sautéed medallions. But that meant I had to forego another old favorite, shaken beef ($22), and resist the call of pad Thai ($15 with veggies and tofu, $16 with shrimp and chicken), five-spice pork chops ($19), tempura ($17/$18), bulgogi ($19) and charred hanger steak ($21).

I also got a deceptively mild coconut-curry clay pot (with seafood, $18; with chicken, $16; with tofu, $15), in which an intensity of flavor slowly reveals itself, well-blended and just a bit sweet. We sampled the tofu-and-veggies variety, which is served in a small clay crock, and we were pleased to have the choice of white or brown rice as the accompaniment—in which case, brown is the healthful way to go.

An extensive sushi menu offers a number of designer rolls in addition to the typical nigiri, maki and sashimi.

The large dining room where we were placed is one of several seating areas. Despite the crowd in which we arrived and our aforementioned appetizers wait, food arrived around us efficiently. I’d like to suggest that the servers refrain from vacuuming the floor while dinner service is in progress, at least with the noisy unit that appeared beside us; I’d like to applaud a server whom I witnessed cleaning a glass tabletop without spritzing it with noxious cleaning fluid.

The third-party dessert selections are an unremarkable selection of cakes and ice cream; we contented ourselves with the meal itself and the sense of well-being it provoked.

 

Spice Dragon

297 North St., Pittsfield, Mass., 413-443-1234. Serving lunch (as of July 1) 11:30-4 Wed-Sun, dinner 4:30-10 Tue-Sun, late menu 10-midnight Thu-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Pan-Asian

Entrée price range: $13 (Margherita flatbread) to $26 (sake-glazed sea bass)

Ambiance: comfortably expansive