It's always risky to open a similar restaurant to another successful one in a location that's not too far away. Unless if you're hoping to capture some "overflow" traffic from the successful restaurant, you are setting yourself up for some stiff competition.
On its face, this is what Cilantro Chinese Restaurant appears to be doing, setting up a restaurant selling soup dumplings and Szechuan style food just a couple blocks down the street from the popular and successful Dumpling House in Cambridge.
If you dig a little deeper, however, you'll find that Cilantro has its own twist and personal stamp on its menu. There are some really interesting and different regional dishes that are unique to Cilantro. I've tried some excellent dishes there that I've never had at any other Chinese restaurant before. Although it very well may serve as an "overflow" for diners who don't feel like waiting for a table at Dumpling House, it also holds its own as another very solid new Chinese restaurant in Cambridge.
Cilantro's chef David Xu specializes in Sichuan cuisine as well as Shandong cuisine (his native land on the northern coast of China).
It's therefore no surprise that Sichuan dishes stand center stage on the menu, with dishes like Roast Beef Tendon with Chili Sauce ($7.95 - pictured at top of post), Chilled Spicy Pig Ears, and various renditions on spicy fish (more on that later). I enjoyed the flavorful chili sauce for the Roast Beef Tendon, though I wished for a bit more tendon and a bit less meat. It was a perfectly fine dish - it just mostly consisted of beef instead of tendon.
One dish that I have really enjoyed is also one I've never seen before at any other restaurant. Tofu Pudding Sichuan Style ($7.95) consists of super soft, delicate tofu pudding in a red hot Sichuan broth. Toasted peanuts on top complete the dish. Although it's bright red, it's not as spicy as it looks. It's deeply flavorful, fragrant, and has just enough spice. I love the interplay between the velvety tofu, intense broth, and crunchy peanuts.
Other signature dishes include the Fish Filet with Spicy Chili Sauce (水煮魚) and Sichuan Style Bubbling Fish. Both of these dishes involve tilapia filets cooked in spicy and intensely flavorful sauces. In the case of the Fish Filet with Spicy Chili Sauce, the sauce is more water based (in Mandarin it literally means "water-cooked fish"), while in the Sichuan Style Bubbling Fish the fish come in a pot of bubbling oil scattered with red hot chili peppers and bean sprouts.
In both cases, the waiter uses a slotted spoon to remove the hot peppers before serving you the huge pot of fish and broth/oil.
I enjoyed the Fish Filet with Spicy Chili Sauce. The sauce was fragrant, well seasoned, and delicious. Bryan wished for more napa cabbage (he claims the waiter fished it all out while trying to remove the red peppers from the pot). All in all, however, everyone at the table enjoyed the flavor and texture of the fish. If you order this dish straight off the menu, it comes in a large bowl, not a pot (unlike the bubbling fish).
People who don't really like oily food may not like the Sichuan Style Bubbling Fish as much, since there is quite a bit of oil in the dish (a whole pot, to be exact)!
Vegetables are good. This simple Pickled Cucumber with Garlic ($5.95), tasted very similar to the version I make at home, and was refreshing as a starter. The portion size was pretty small, though, so you may want to order more than one if you have a larger party.
The Sauteed Pea Shoots ($13.95) were cooked and seasoned perfectly. There's always a fear that pea shoots are too tough. In this case, these were tender and overall great.
Similarly, the Sauteed Chinese Watercress with Garlic ($10.95) was also cooked and seasoned well.
Skip the Mini Soup Dumplings with Pork or other types of dumplings. The skins are very thick and doughy and the dumplings in general don't hold together well. This is clearly not their specialty, and it shows. There are many other better soup dumplings in the city.
We ordered the Kunming Roast Duck (half $19.95; whole $38.95) purely because it was a more unusual dish that we had never seen before. Apparently Yunnan Province, and more specifically Kunming in Yiliang County, is really well known for its roast duck, rivaling only Beijing in its fame in China. It was invented around 1900, when a chef from Yunnan named Zhang Wen traveled to Beijing to learn how to make roast duck. When he returned to his hometown, he adapted the recipe to use local ingredients.
Kunming Roast Duck differs from Peking Duck in that honey is added to the sauce and the duck is roasted over pine branches and needles, which add a unique fragrance to the duck.
I'm not sure if Cilantro used all those techniques in making this duck, though I'm pretty sure there was honey, since the sauce is sweeter than a typical Peking duck. I personally enjoyed the duck, finding the thick, honey-based sauce to be flavorful and a good balance between sweet and savory. The execution of the duck was decent. The skin could have been crispier and the meat could have been a bit more juicy. It was nowhere near the best we've ever had, but overall it was still enjoyable.
Bryan thought the sauce was too sweet for his tastes, but he's pretty sensitive about sweet food in general.
One of the best dishes I've had at Cilantro is actually the Braised Pork, Mao's Family Style ($13.95). Pork belly is slow braised until it is meltingly tender in a richly flavorful sauce that includes leeks, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, anise, wine, and red chilies. The method is sometimes called "red braised" (hong shao in Mandarin) and results in a beautifully flavorful meat.
All in all, I think Cilantro is an excellent addition to Cambridge. There are not that many restaurants in Cambridge that serve Sichuan cuisine, so it's a welcomed addition. Their Sichuan dishes are very good and in general the vegetable dishes are solid. I would skip the more Cantonese-type dishes. The few dim sum dishes we've gotten have been mediocre, and the soup dumplings are very average and not worth ordering.
Stick with Sichuan dishes and maybe explore dishes you've never tried before. When it doubt, ask the waiter for recommendations. That's how we discovered the Braised Pork, Mao's Family Style. Maybe ask which of the dishes on the menu are from Shandong, the chef's hometown. Or if you're not feeling that adventurous, I think you'll do fine just sticking to the Sichuan stuff on the menu.