The first items arriving to our table from Bistro Han's kitchen were the braised pork belly steamed buns ($5). Two to an order, perched on a small plate, these were fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand-sized sandwiches: thick slabs of browned pork encased in snowy, white dough. The pork belly and the belly of the bun were painted lightly with hoisin sauce and topped with scallions and shards of peanuts.
A burst of flavors and senses exploded with the first bite: Wonder Bread softness; unctuous and fatty pork; caramelized sweetness; sharp oniony greenness; salty, peanuty crunch. Conversation at the table halted. These were too good for us to keep talking, too good not to focus all our attention on the food.
We ordered some more.
If the only delicious item on Bistro Han's menu was the pork belly bun, it still would be worth the trip. Luckily, however, there are lots of dishes that beg to be sampled and savored -- the goal of the owners (who wish to remain publically anonymous).
"We like to cook the food the way we eat it," writes one of the co-owners and moderator of Bistro Han's Facebook page in a private message. "It's authentic and traditional cooking that we like to share."
It's a little surprising to find such quality, and dedication to quality, in a shopping plaza. Neighboring a nail-art studio, bank, and gym, Bistro Han is unassuming from the outside. But once inside, it becomes clear that the restaurant is serious about providing a good dining experience to its customers.
The dining room is long and narrow. The palette is stark: charcoal grays and soft whites are punctuated by nail-polish-red Chinese characters translating to "Han." Wispy paper chandeliers hang from the ceiling, drawing the eye up and around to a long chalkboard mural. Spare and abstract, the chalk lines suggest water and steam swirling around a piping hot bowl of noodles. The effect is understated and calm, perhaps to help focus diners' attention on the food.
All your attention - and time and appetite - can be spent lingering over the small-plates menu. While there aren't carts wheeled around the room as in a dim sum-only establishment, those flavors and that style can still be found at Bistro Han.
The cumin beef ($5) marries plump hunks of flank steak with cumin and chili pepper. It's like a deconstructed Tex-Mex chili, but with flavors that are purer and more evocative. Tidy squares of pepper flakes add heat and beauty to the beef, coloring the ends of wooden chopsticks a sunset orange.
Mini cuttlefish ($5) are gingery with a spicy hit, thanks to Szechuan peppercorn oil. There's a touch of smokiness, almost as if from a flame's char, but there's no visual evidence of fire applied to the fish. Legs are present — and dangle jauntily from the end of a fork.
Roasted duck ($8) is finger-licking delicious. Chopped into two-inch pieces, the soft skin and yielding meat wrap around the bones, demanding full attention and dexterous fingers. Roll each piece in the pooling juices and melted fat on your plate for extra flavor.
Scallion pancakes ($3) are lovely fried cakes, with layers that are crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle. I wish more of the oniony flavor came through, but the salt, fat, and acidic dipping sauce still hit the spot.
Fried pork dumplings ($4 for six) are soft with crisp bottoms, a mild pork filling, and a vinegary dipping sauces that balance out the dumplings' slight sweetness. Even the crab rangoon ($4 for six), not something I typically like, is done well at Bistro Han. It's light, crunchy, and creamy, and paired with a mango-chili dipping sauce that starts sweet but leaves a subtle tingle on the tongue.
To cleanse the palate before moving on, eat the daikon radish ($3). It's crunchy and fresh like a fall apple but is sweet and sour, not sweet and green.
Elsewhere on the menu are larger plates, some with the familiar American take on Chinese cuisine, and others that remain truer to their origins. Spicy General Chicken ($11) falls firmly into the former camp but, like the crab rangoon, is prepared with more thought, care, and flavor than in many other Asian establishments. It's made with chicken that manages to be both white and moist — not the easiest task to manage in the kitchen. The dish's sauce, which coats each piece of chicken, is a little sweet, a little spicy, and pretty much everything you could want from a plate of General Tso's chicken. The Tangy Sesame Chicken ($11) is similarly prepared, and tempting. It leaves the spice of the General Chicken behind, but the sesame seeds add a toasty nuttiness.
More traditional items, made with an emphasis on offering "healthy, traditional Chinese meals" are found under the menu's "House Specials." They include ginger-scallion cod ($13) and Spicy Chuan Jiao Pork ($9). The cod is mild and subtle, with a slightly spongy mouthfeel; carrots, snow peas, and mushrooms add depth. But it all takes a backseat to the occasional slices of thin ginger, which add pops of bracing freshness. The pork is fiery and fragrant, tender and smoky. Brightly colored carrots and peppers attract the eye and perk up the dish.
My visits to Bistro Han only scratched the surface of what's offered; even when I brought several guests, there was only so much we could taste at one sitting. There's still crispy squid to eat, Tom Yum soup to sip, and Dan Dan noodles to slurp — and three other varieties of steamed buns to taste. I'll be back.
Perinton Hills Shopping Center, Fairport
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m.