Imperial Cuisine of China Arrives in L.A. - Is This Really What Emperors Ate? Bistro Na's (Na Jia Xiao Guan) [Review]


#1

One of the rarer regional cuisines of China to make it out to the U.S., China’s Imperial Cuisine (Gong Ting Cai) has now arrived in Los Angeles in the form of Bistro Na’s, which is an outlet of the famous Beijing restaurant Na Jia Xiao Guan. Seeing the English sign and font makes it look like a fast-casual French-Italian(?) restaurant.

But then you see the Chinese sign and outer door as you get closer and it starts to set the stage for one of the most beautiful Chinese restaurants we’ve ever been to in L.A.

Stepping inside, it is stunning. None of the absurd gaudy, bordello decor of Shanghai No. 1 Seafood :smirk:, Bistro Na’s decor makes us feel like we stepped into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or something, LOL. :stuck_out_tongue: :slight_smile:

But the key question is what is this “Imperial Cuisine” and how does it taste? Chinese Imperial Cuisine is a regional style of cooking, made primarily for the Emperor and the royal family. Given that thought, you would think and expect Imperial Cuisine to be lavish, over-the-top, full of bold flavors and excess perhaps.

My own thought was: If this was really made for the Emperor and the royal family only, how in the world did it get out to the common folk? And who can really vouch for its authenticity? It’s not like we can consult an Emperor and see just how legit this food is. :smile: :stuck_out_tongue:

The menu looks distinct (although it’s all photocopies of their Beijing hardbound menu (the size of a novel). We begin with one of their loose-leaf tea selections.

Daisy Tea (Chrysanthemum + Pu-erh Tea Leaves):

Unlike most Chinese restaurants they charge for their Tea, but when you taste the quality of the Tea Leaves, we have no complaints: Their “Daisy Tea” is fragrant and floral from the Chrysanthemum (which smells amazing and has a great flavor, more robust than the usual Chrysanthemum we get at even the best Dim Sum restaurants around L.A. like Sea Harbour); and the Pu-erh leaves add a nice earthy, enriching quality. It is excellent.

Smoked Pork Rib:

We begin with one of their cold appetizers, Smoked Pork Ribs. At first, we’re disappointed that it’s a cold appetizer, but the flavors are nuanced, with a smoky quality, nice marinade that permeates each bite of the Pork Ribs. They are delicious! :slight_smile:

Emperor’s Jar (Beef Tendon, Mushroom, Fish Maw, Quail Egg, Sea Cucumber):

First, the presentation is understated yet classy. The bowl for the Emperor’s Jar Soup is beautiful (red clay rim). The soup is delicate and tastes like a concentrated long-stewed, high-quality Chicken Stock. The Beef Tendon is delicious, soaking up the quality Chicken Stock, infusing a normally bland piece of food with flavor.

They also recommend trying a little bit of these condiments (one at a time) to see if you might prefer the change in flavor (Pickled Chili Peppers, Cilantro, Fermented Tofu):

We try out a little bit with the stock, and it really does enhance / alter the Emperor’s Jar’s flavor. We liked it best with Cilantro or plain. It was tasty, but at $20 for a bowl of soup it’s on the pricier side (with no Shark’s Fin or Bird’s Nest in sight (which is usually the reason for the pricier soups on some Chinese menus)).

Cauliflower:

The plainly named “Cauliflower” on the menu is a saute of Cauliflower, Garlic, Green Onions, Pork Belly and Chilies. Our friend points out that each of their dishes is personalized with the restaurant’s name, and the plating is fancy.

The actual Cauliflower is fine. It tastes like a nicely sauteed mix of Cauliflower, Soy Sauce-based Sauce with Garlic, While the previous 2 dishes were notable, dishes like this make us wonder, “Is this really what Emperors ate?” Because it seemed rather straightforward.

Traditional Beijing Noodles:

Their “Traditional Beijing Noodles” turned out to be the commonly found Zha Jiang Mian, or the Chinese equivalent of the Korean-Chinese obsidian colored Jajangmyeon. The waiter happily informs us that they make their Noodles in-house (which is always a good thing). The presentation is nice, with each of the ingredients separated.

Sadly, it is all for naught as this was a bowl of the saltiest, mushiest Zha Jiang Mian we’ve ever had. :weary: The Noodles (if they really were made in-house) were completely overcooked and mushy! The flavors were way too salty and it was downright awful. We couldn’t take more than a bite. :sob: Avoid at all costs.

Green Onion Pancake:

The next dish is a complete 180: Bistro Na’s Housemade Green Onion Pancakes are excellent! They are slightly crisped, not greasy tasting at all, light and delicate, and far better than the ones we had at Little Fatty recently. These are probably some of the best ones we’ve had in recent memory. :blush:

Exploring their restaurant a bit more on another visit, and we notice they have Private Banquet Rooms (that you can reserve), and the decor is as classy as the regular dining room:

On another visit, we start with Iron Buddha Tea:

Which turns out to be Iron Goddess Tea. The quality of the tea is evident again, better than the usual Iron Goddess we get at the better Dim Sum restaurants around town. The Oolong is distinct, with a nice roasted aroma.

Crispy Shrimp (South American Shrimp, Chili Pepper, Green Onion, Ginger, Garlic):

Their English menu names are hilariously simple at times. Our friends who join us on this visit say that the Chinese name is much more interesting. :slight_smile:

A special note has to be said about the plating here: The plate stand is absolutely stunning! :open_mouth:

And the Crispy Shrimp itself is fried at such a high temperature that the outer shell has turned into a shatteringly crisp density, like eating Soft-Shell Crab. The first bite is a crisped crunch followed by perfectly cooked Shrimp, tender, and full of flavor. It is delicious! :blush: Garlicky, a touch of sweetness (only a bit), and full of flavor. This was our favorite dish so far. :slight_smile:

Crispy Lamb (Lamb Belly, Salt, Pepper):

Their Crispy Lamb doesn’t reach the heights of their Crispy Shrimp. They take slivers of Lamb Belly (well-marinated), batter and fry it, to try and create a semblance of “crispiness” while eating soft Lamb. The actual breading tastes clumsy and greasy. :frowning: But the Lamb Belly itself is melting, tender, with a delicate gaminess.

Baby Mustard Heart (Potato, Pork, Baby Bok Choy):

So the menu calls it “Baby Mustard Heart,” and claims there is Potato (there is none), Pork (there is none) and Boy Choy. Instead it is Boy Choy with Mustard Greens and Mushrooms. :unamused: :smile: I guess they ran out of ingredients?

The dish as it was tasted rather basic: Bitter Mustard Greens (which is fine), lightly sauteed with Bok Choy and Mushrooms. It was as bland as it sounded. :frowning:

Ginseng Chicken Stew (Ginseng, Beef Tendon, Chicken):

Their Ginseng Chicken Stew tastes of long-cooked Chicken, a real concentration of Chicken-y essence and herbal flavors of Ginseng. It was an excellent Chicken Broth. :slight_smile:

Vegetable In The Box:

The hilariously named Vegetable In The Box is Bistro Na’s version of the commonly found Chinese pastry with Chinese Chives, Eggs wrapped in dough and pan-fried. Unfortunately, their version is really bland and the dough is too thick. :weary: Definitely skip this dish.

On a 3rd visit, we start with:

Dragon Well Tea:

Like before, their loose leaf teas are excellent (at least compared to what’s commonly found at Chinese restaurants locally). Dragon Well is lighter than the Iron Goddess, and imparts a subtle “sweet” aftertaste (even though there is no sugar); it’s nice. :slight_smile:

Steamed Egg with Tofu (Egg, Yellow Beans, Vegetables):

Their Steamed Egg with Tofu looks distinct (if a bit shocking perhaps). It is fried in a Tempura batter, giving it a light, subtle crispness, giving way to a soft Steamed Egg + Tofu consistency. However, the flavors are rather bland. :frowning: Even with the Vegetable Stock-based sauce, it’s not very interesting.

Stuffed Lotus Root (Osmanthus Flower, Sticky Rice, Lotus Root):

Now this seemed like something that might be for the Emperor: The ingredients and stuffing Lotus Root slices with a special blend of Sticky Rice and Osmanthus Flowers seems like something elevated. But then you taste it:

It’s completely sugary-sweet! :fearful: :unamused: :frowning:

It’s clearly on the Appetizers section of the menu. We ask the waiter and he confirms “Yes, this is not a dessert.” :unamused:

Either way, it tastes like Dessert. Cold slices of cooked Lotus Root, in a sugary-sweet (but fragrant) Sauce. It was rather upsetting, probably because our expectations were that this was an Appetizer / savory-type dish, but instead it was completely sweet.

But even as a Dessert, it was rather so-so. The Osmanthus Flowers did add a nice floral note to each bite, but otherwise, the more common type of Chinese Desserts like Black Sesame Soup, Sweet Rice with Black Sesame Balls, Egg Tarts and more, are all far superior in flavor and enjoyment factor.

Preserved Garlic with Intestine:

Now this was much better! Funky (real offal funk), pungent Preserved Garlic (delicious), Mushrooms in a slightly piquant Sauce made each super tender morsel of Stewed Pork Intestines memorable. :slight_smile: Paging @Xochitl.

Stewed Pork Belly (Pork Belly, Green Onions, Ginger, Garlic):

And then we get their Stewed Pork Belly. Unlike the Shanghai version, which is sweeter (just a touch), this version has a distinct aroma infused with a certain type of Rice Wine. The flavor profile is deeper, richer, and it is really delicious! :blush:

The Pork Belly is long-stewed, tender, deeply infused with flavor, and their Housemade Sauce is noteworthy, not thickened by Corn Starch (like many Chinese restaurants), it is long-distilled down and delicious with some Steamed Rice. :slight_smile:

Our favorite dish on the menu! :slight_smile:

Nails Patty:

We had to order this based on the name alone, LOL. :laughing: “Nails Patty” are small, rounded, pan-seared Pastries made in-house. Within is a Ground Pork + Chinese Chives mixture, so it’s almost like a glorified Gyoza / Potsticker.

Warning though: There is a lot of Pork Juice / Fat so when you bite into it, be prepared to have some of it shoot out if you’re not careful. :open_mouth:

Flavor-wise, it tastes rather mundane. :frowning: Again, I’m wondering, “Is this really what they’d serve to the Emperor of China?” :confused:

Most of the excellent Handmade Dumpling Houses have more robust fillings than what’s in this Nails Patty.

Crispy Rice Cake (Flour, Sugar, Egg, Raisin):

The server recommends their Crispy Rice Cake as one of the best Desserts on the menu. It looks like Rice Crispy Treats. :smile: :stuck_out_tongue:

Sadly, it tastes kind of stale, chewy, sugary, and just not very good. We would not order this again. :frowning:

Service was mediocre: Slow, and we’d have to flag down a server to get refills for Tea or Napkins, etc.

Ultimately, Bistro Na’s serves up some unique dishes that comprises aspects of Chinese Imperial Cuisine. But after so many mediocre, bland or poorly-executed dishes (Zha Jiang Mian, Crispy Rice Cake, most of their Dumpling / Pastries, etc.), you have to wonder, is this really what the Emperor and royal family in China ate, back in the day?

In speaking with another friend who recently went to Beijing as part of an Asia vacation, they tried the famous Beijing Imperial Cusine restaurants of Fang Shan and Li Jia Cai. Their thoughts: “Not worth it.” “Mostly bland, so-so dishes, beautiful restaurant environment.” :frowning:

Perhaps living in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Emperor didn’t know any better? But the “commoner” dishes and regional cuisines we’ve had from great Shanghai restaurants, Hong Kong Cantonese restaurants, the fiery dynamic dishes of Szechuan and Hunan have more flavor and depth than any of the dishes at Bistro Na’s.

The Steamed Mince Pork with Water Chestnuts and Black Bean Paste, the Steamed Spot Prawns, and legendary French-Style Taro Buns at Sea Harbour? (Thanks @ipsedixit!) Far more interesting flavors than anything at Bistro Na’s.

The same can be said for the great Shanghainese dishes like the best Xiao Long Bao (XLB / Soup Dumplings) at the top Shanghai restaurants around town, or the soulful Water Boiled Fish and Mapo Tofu from Szechuan restaurants like Spicy CIty or Szechuan Impressions. They are all bursting with distinct flavors, dynamic and downright delicious.

Bistro Na’s decor is classy and gorgeous, some of the dishes / plating are stunning, and if you navigate the menu carefully, you can find some real winners like their Crispy Shrimp, Smoked Pork Rib, Stewed Pork Belly and their amazing Green Onion Pancakes. Their Emperor’s Jar is noteworthy but really expensive.

But for those hits, there are plenty more mediocre, bland, or so-so dishes.

Bistro Na’s has just opened, so we’re hoping they sort out the issues. But after 3 visits and hearing from friends who’ve tried Imperial Cuisine in Beijing (at multiple places), it sounds like this regional style just might be inherently more bland or mundane. It’s baffling this was served to the Emperor of China when there are so many delicious “commoner” dishes (from many other regions of China) that have tons of flavor and excellence that we already enjoy around L.A.

With the most beautiful decor for a Chinese restaurant in L.A., a few excellent dishes, and a rarer style of regional cooking, Bistro Na’s has potential. We hope they improve their faults for many of their other dishes and get better service. If they can straighten that out, it could be a mainstay restaurant in L.A.

(Reservations Recommended. They were completely booked on all 3 visits.)

Bistro Na’s
9055 Las Tunas Drive, Suite 105
Temple City, CA 91780
Tel: (626) 286-1999

(Thanks to the Eater LA news article for info on the grand opening.)

Update:

Thanks to my big mouth, 2 groups of friends insisted on us trying Bistro Na’s, even with my warnings on the mixed menu. :sweat_smile: They offered to drive, so off we went.

Dragon Well Tea:

As fragrant as last time.

Crispy Shrimp (South American Shrimp, Chili Pepper, Green Onion, Ginger, Garlic):

Thankfully they are as consistent as the last time we ordered it (1st visit). Shatteringly crisp Shrimp Shells with juicy, tender Shrimp within. Eating it like Soft-Shell Shrimp, shell and all, was satisfying and delicious. :slight_smile:

Their presentation on this dish remains stunning with that wooden carved base.

Buddah’s Favorite (Broccoli, Potato, Cauliflower, Eggplant, Green Beans):

This was a solid Veggie dish: Stewed Broccoli, Cauliflower, Potatoes, Eggplant and Green Beans in a Chinese Curry Sauce. The Curry was mild, but fragrant, on the thinner side. It went great with some Steamed Rice.

Na’s Beef Prime Rib:

This was a massive bone-in chunk of Prime Rib, except it’s been slow-cooked (to a well-done?). This looked better on the menu, and we were worried, but with the slow-cooking, we got soft, really tender slices of their Prime Rib, with a good beefy flavor, and a mix of lean and a bit of fat. This was pretty good. :slight_smile:

Green Onion Pancake:

Still as crisp and only lightly oily as before. Their Green Onion Pancakes are worth ordering, some of the better ones we’ve had in the area in a while. :slight_smile:

Stewed Pork Belly (Pork Belly, Green Onions, Ginger, Garlic):

As tender and nicely cooked down as last time. Some tender morsels of Pork Belly. :slight_smile:

Empress’s Jar (Beef Tendon, Mushroom, Fish Maw, Quail Egg, Sea Cucumber, Forest Frog):

The last time we tried the Emperor’s Jar Soup, but this time we opted for their Empress’s Jar, which is even more expensive than the Emperor’s Jar. The Empress’s version is a more delicate, softer mouthfeel soup. It’s a toss up on which one is better. Like before they give you the condiments to add (one at a time to see which you like more):

Like before, we felt Cilantro or just non-Condiments was the way to go. Pretty delicious soup and nice presentation again, but that price point makes it hard to recommend ($21.95 per bowl).

On another visit (yes, a separate group of friends), we started with…

Smoked Pork Rib:

These were excellent. Just as fragrant with a nicely balanced smoky infusion. It would’ve been even better as a hot dish (instead of a chilled appetizer), but it was still delicious as is. :slight_smile:

Na’s Beef Prime Rib:

Ordering this again on this 5th visit, it is sadly overcooked and slightly dry. :frowning: Very unfortunate that they are inconsistent for a pricier main dish like this.

Na’s Steamed Chicken:

They use a Free-Range Chicken, and it’s marinated in an intense Rice Wine. In fact, this tasted very much like the classic “Drunken Chicken” dish we’ve had at Shanghai restaurants before. Regardless, it was pretty solid, with a strong (fragrant) Chinese Wine flavor permeating each piece of the Free-Range Chicken. Not as good as the best ones we’ve had but not bad.

Sauteed Asparagus:

This tasted fine. Nothing special, but solidly sauteed Asparagus slivers.

Dry Cooked Stuffed Mushrooms (Chicken, Green Onion, Ginger, Garlic, Rice Noodles):

These weren’t really “stuffed,” LOL as we saw when the dish came out. It was a nice saute of Mushrooms with chopped up bits of Ground Marinated Chicken, Green Onion, Ginger, Garlic. It was OK, but nothing really noteworthy.

Diced Honey Black Pepper Beef:

Thanks to @chandavkl for the rec, we tried their saute of Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper and Honey. It was delicious! :blush: It thankfully wasn’t a “sweet & sour” type of flavor, but something more nuanced. The Beef Tenderloin was cooked medium (not overcooked), and quite tender.

Cheese Milk:

The most ridiculous menu item name “Cheese Milk” turns out to be a Milk Pudding carved into the shape of a Fish. What does Cheese Milk have to do with Fish? I have no idea. :stuck_out_tongue:

The dish itself was unique in that the Milk Pudding-shaped Fish was super wobbly and smooth: Like Silken Tofu, except tasting of Powdered Milk. This isn’t anything we’d order again.

Fried Rice Cake:

The simply-named Fried Rice Cake turned out to be Sticky Rice, infused with Osmanthus Flowers and Sugar, pan-seared to form a slightly crisped crust. By itself it had an intriguing textural draw (it’s hot, slightly crisped, fragrant), but rather tasteless. Dipping it lightly in the Sweetened Condensed Milk served on the side, it adds a needed Sugar component, and makes this a pretty enjoyable Dessert. :slight_smile:

Rose Pastrise:

This turned out to be a filling of Ground Red Dates, lightly sweetened. While served cold, one of our friends recommended it heated (and asked the server to heat it up). It was nice heated up, but the Ground Red Date filling was slightly chalky, but sweet.

In the end, after trying these Desserts, we still think the offerings from Hong Kong, Shanghai and other regions are so much better. These are just not that interesting.

It looks like a few more winners were found, but also more misses. If you can navigate the minefield that is their menu, and stick with stuff like their good Loose Leaf Teas, Crispy Shrimp, Emperor’s Jar, Green Onion Pancake, Preserved Garlic with Intestine, Diced Honey Black Pepper Beef, and a few other items, you can make a good meal out of your visit. Order other items, and it might result in a pretty bad experience.

Bistro Na’s
9055 Las Tunas Drive, Suite 105
Temple City, CA 91780
Tel: (626) 286-1999

Update 2: Revisit with Steamed Pork Rib (delicious) -


#2

Sounds like perhaps a bit of skip for now… Thanks for the beautifully detailed review.


#3

Can’t wait until they go out of business so I can buy their plateware.


#4

Very nice decor, unfortunate food not commensurate


#5

Those are amazing examples. But it would be sad to think of my kids plating some microwave chicken nuggets on them - blasphemy.


#6

Thanks @paranoidgarliclover. :slight_smile:

Yah, for a special occasion and if you can carefully order (pick out the hits), a dinner at Bistro Na’s is quite enjoyable. But there are so many landmines (mediocre, bland, not that memorable dishes) to avoid that there’s a risk of getting something so-so.

Now that we’ve been enough times, we know what we’d order and avoid for sure. There are a few other items we haven’t tried yet (perhaps next time if any of our friends drag us over there), so we’ll see how it goes. :wink:


#7

Or is the juxtaposition of high-end and low-brow actually a hispter-cool way to make a comment on the economic disparities present in modern society???

Bwahahahahahahahaha.

Or maybe I’m just giving your kids too much credit? :wink:


#8

Good report @Chowseeker1999! Even though the food was hit or miss (maybe a little more miss?) I think your point of it being a nice place for a special occasion is still a good idea, especially with a group. I love the plateware and those tea cups (glasses). Good pictures! The green onion pancakes look divine.

[quote=“paranoidgarliclover, post:7, topic:4724”]
the juxtaposition of high-end and low-brow actually a hispter-cool way
[/quote]Interesting. I used to work with a lot of bands. I got a kick out of the alternative rock guys. They had this trend of wearing thrift store clothes, not eating in fancy places or drinking expensive liquor, but would drive brand new Cadillacs or some other American luxury car. And almost all played golf. They were probably making some kind of a statement. I don’t know what it was. But I thought it was kinda’ cool.


#9

Thanks @TheCookie. :slight_smile: Yah, if you’re careful with navigating the menu and choosing their successful / delicious dishes, it can be a great meal, and their Teas are wonderful (all in a nice setting). :slight_smile: I do hope they improve and can pull the rest of their menu forward, improving it all.


#10

The teas do seem wonderful.


#11

Bistro Na’s isn’t really doing Imperial Cuisine. Not in the true classical fashion.

But be that as it may, as I said before, “if looks could kill, Medusa should be worried. Problem is, looks can’t cook.”


#12

I don’t know what the hell that means. But I’m glad to see you posting again.


#13

perhaps he is suggesting that there is a disparity in the amount of attention paid to the decorating & plating compared to quality of the cuisine being served.


#14

Funny


#15

The more I read about this cuisine (or cuisines), the less idea I have of what it is or was, or what “authentic” would mean. Seems like different eras had different cuisines, and there’s a lot of modern reinvention.

http://www.china.org.cn/english/imperial/25792.htm

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122370174


#16

Thanks for thinking of me!! I would like to try that intestine dish! I love that funky offal smell ( was that a one hit wonder song from the 80’s…?) Combined with the hits you found in the menu!


#17

Dropped by for lunch today. I showed up first and the waitress offered to seat me immediately but I said I’d wait for my friend. Took a peek inside and the large dining room was empty. My friend arrives a couple of minutes of later, but the waitress is gone, but a waiter is outside. He asks if we have reservations. I say no and he says he’s not sure we can be accommodated. I told him the waitress said it was OK, and she eventually comes out and takes us into the dining room.

We ordered the spinach sesame roll, the honey pepper beef and the Beijing style noodles.

Basically it’s a rectangular cube of spinach smothered in a sesame sauce and topped with sesame seeds. The spinach was incredibly tough. Was it a different kind of spinach? Taste was OK.

The honey pepper beef was the highlight.

Tender, moist and flavorful.

Strangely when we ordered the Beijing noodles they gave us a warning–just use a little bit of the sauce (which was in a separate cup) first because it might be too salty. This was a totally average dish, particularly the noodles which didn’t eat like hand made noodles.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about lunch was that virtually all of the customers were women. You’d think they were casting for The Rich Housewives of the San Gabriel Valley or something.


#18

Thanks for the report back @chandavkl.

Yah when we saw the spinach with sesame “cube” picture on the menu, I felt like we should probably skip it. :stuck_out_tongue:

Thanks for the tip on the honey pepper beef; sounds wonderful.

The noodles: I wish you’d seen my warning; we had the same impression (really bad noodles / average dish).


#19

We did see your review beforehand. Zha Jiang Mian is sort of a litmus test for comparison, kind of like ha gow or cheung fun for a dim sum place, so it was worth ordering for that reason.


#20

Hi @chandavkl,

Ah I see. Good point. Thanks. :slight_smile: