By Bernie Whitmore

271 Grafton Street, Shrewsbury

Some of us remember when going out for Chinese food meant pulling up to a storefront tarted out with fake pagoda, menus printed in a font vaguely Asian, and dining on bright red ribs, gobs of sticky sauce and pineapple chunks. Someplace on the opposite end of that universe is Bauhinia, located in a cavernous hunting lodge; think post-and-beam architecture on steroids.

A couple of friends accompanied me for dinner on a shivery January evening; the frigid climes prompted us to request a “warm table.” The host assured our comfort and led us around a huge fieldstone hearth to a booth that did indeed prove deliciously warm.

Amy, our server, welcomed us and took our drink order. Tsingtao beer’s simple crisp flavor gets low marks from beer lovers, but this simplicity makes it a natural match for Chinese cuisine. Amy seemed to agree and served it in frosty glasses. She gave us plenty of time to browse both the Japanese and Chinese menus as we formed a strategy for our meal.

We started with sushi and maki rolls. They were attractively served in regimented columns on a large square dish. The rich flavor of Spicy Tuna Maki was accented with “tempura crunch” that gave it a surprising and pleasing granular crispiness. California Roll abided by standard crabstick-avocado-cucumber formula but was upgraded with a topping of golden Tobiko (tiny jewel-like flying fish roe).

Lined up aside the maki rolls were two portions of Maguro Tuna Sushi ~ perfectly fresh tuna set on rice. One of my friends, doubting he’d like sushi, ordered hot and sour soup. I regarded its pinkish hue with suspicion, but he was pleased with the spicy flavor ~ not too hot! ~ and its chunky mix of tofu and vegetables. For the record, he’s no longer a sushi virgin.

After clearing the sushi dishes, Amy returned to fill our water glasses. Her service was an ideal balance of unhurried and attentive. Sensing an opportunity, we asked her about the name (Bauhinia sounded anything but Asian to me). She proudly pointed to an illustration on the menu’s cover and explained that the bauhinia is Hong Kong’s national flower. Seeing her willingness to divulge, we then inquired about the grouping of steam-tables across a divider from our booth. This gave her the opportunity to rave about their Sunday buffet.

Most Chinese restaurants serve enormous entrees and send you packing with leftovers packed in take-out “bait” boxes. Bauhinia’s a bit different; their portion size is more suited to normal human appetites. I find this far more appetizing than a table laden down with soggy vegetables. Their General Gao’s Chicken was made with tender chunks of white meat lightly coated, stir-fried and served with sauce that balanced sweet and hot.

Beef with Asparagus had a deeper, richer flavor than one encounters at most Chinese restaurants. Large, deep-green asparagus spears were cut on a bias into chopstick-manageable size. Even though I’ve mentioned smaller portion sizes, there were plenty of tender strips of beef to go around the table a couple times. I mixed the sauce from both entrees with spoonfuls of Pork-Fried Rice.

Don’t let looks deceive. From the street, Bauhinia might not play by the traditional Chinese-restaurant playbook, but their gracious service and superior cuisine are better than any faux pagoda.