April 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham Restaurant Review:

The appealing menu at China Café goes beyond geographic boundaries

The China Café offers a wide variety of modern Asian dishes, including this spicy salted calamari. (Kiya Gibbons / Special to The Detroit News)

The Chinese restaurant has come a long way since the days when egg foo young and chop suey were considered exotic dishes.

Restaurants such as Mon Jin Lau in Troy, Gim Ling in St. Clair Shores and Peng Lai in Rochester Hills are typical of the new breed, called Nu-Asian or modern Chinese, and so is China Café, the handsome restaurant in a small strip mall on the corner of Novi Road and 10 Mile.

Husband and wife team Kelly and Susana Chang turn out a contemporary Asian menu in a many-windowed, two-room setting done up in soft colors with a gorgeous focal point -- an ornate and colorful silk emperor robe brought from China by Kelly Chang's father. It is set into a frame between the dining room and the bar.

The Changs don't use the word "fusion" in describing their cuisine, but they agree that it departs from traditional Chinese. Kelly calls it an "open-minded menu. My goal is to serve food people will enjoy," and he and his wife, who runs the front of the restaurant, are certainly achieving that objective.

The fare is varied, affordable -- especially given the quality -- and nicely served on outsized plates and bowls atop tables covered in linen with an overlay of fresh white paper.

And here's an especially nice touch: The menu includes the line, "Missing your old favorites? Please ask your server." If the kitchen has the ingredients, it will put together a dish to the diner's specifications.

Certainly most people will find something that appeals on a list that includes such appetizers as lettuce wraps with chicken or seafood, vegetarian spring rolls and steamed or fried pot stickers. Soups include a resonant hot and sour as well as wonton and vegetable tofu among several others, including a soup du jour.

Main dishes range from wok-seared flank steak with dried chilis, and sole with black bean sauce, to rice and noodle dishes such as Hunan-style fried rice with vegetables, garlic, fresh basil and a touch of chili peppers, and pan-fried crispy noodles that may be teamed with chicken, shrimp, beef or a combination.

There's a touch of Thai and more than a touch of Korean here. The Thai influence shows up in sauces including coconut curry and basil and also in the popular noodle dish pad Thai and panang curry shrimp.

There's an even stronger Korean emphasis, including a dish that combines noodles with a rich overlay of black beans, one of my favorites here.

Another is a Chinese dish of stir-fried fresh green beans that may be teamed with chicken, pork, beef or shrimp, but seems to work best with chicken. Szechuan eggplant with minced pork in a spicy garlic sauce is another notable dish on a menu that is extensive without being overpowering.

The Changs encourage the staff to recommend dishes when guests are undecided, and the black-clad servers do it with enthusiasm.

With its accessible menu, friendly service and well-stocked bar that includes the Chinese beer Tsing Tao on tap, China Café has an appeal that transcends its low-key location down the road from Novi's restaurant center.

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