TAMPA — Christmas Day and many of us are carving the roast beast and waddling through drifts of rumpled ribbon. But there are other long-standing traditions on that day that are mistletoe- and eggnog-free. Many of the Jews I know, for example, reserve Dec. 25 for Chinese food and a first-run flick, two great things that go great together. • Here are a couple of newcomers that might fit the bill on Christmas Day if you're looking for an outing.
Tampa, long dominant in the bay area for authentic and tasty Chinese food, has a new reason to crow. First there was China Yuan, and then came Yummy House. Opened two months ago, Chopstix is in the same league, worthy of a decent drive and some ambitious ordering. Owner Stan Du has a decent bloodline, having worked at Tampa's TC Choy and ABC Seafood in St. Petersburg (one of Pinellas' very few contenders, especially when it comes to whole fish and fresh shrimp preparations) before taking over the space that used to be Golden Dragon.
It's not much to look at — clean, pleasant and unfussy, in a strip that also contains Ho Ho Choy (another decent purveyor of Chinese and dim sum). Servers aim to please but aren't likely to explicate the exotic for you to a useful degree. You're on your own if you want to explore, but versions of familiar dishes are also worth scrutinizing.
So, this means you can take a stab at the ambitious cold appetizer platter ($16.95) with its textural jamboree of slithery jellyfish strands, pork and beef tendon (chewy, for real), chicken feet and duck wings. Or scroll through the options on the separate printed dim sum menu — most are $2.95, which means a crowd of little plates containing chive dumplings, stuffed bean curd skins, shrimp balls and familiar pork sui mai won't set you back too much. While not the festive cart-service approach, Chopstix dim sum is elegantly formed and expertly seasoned.
On the other hand, Chopstix does a nice job with those dishes that might mystify the average Mainland China diner: that sweet-as-dessert walnut shrimp ($13.95) with its spiked mayo and candied nuts; General Tso's chicken ($7.95), sporting the winning combo of sweet-spicy and deep fried; or its less spicy cousin, sweet and sour chicken ($7.95). Portions are ample, so a family-style meal for four may only require three dishes plus rice.
If you're going to limit yourself to a number like that, the snow pea tips ($10.95, but they don't always have them) or spicy Szechuan eggplant ($7.95) are excellent, as is the range of fat, chewy chow fun noodles (topped with a choice of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp, $7.95 to $8.95). Virtually all proteins are offered simmered in XO sauce, a sophisticated (and subtler than it sounds) Cantonese concoction of dried scallop and fish with a bit of chili and garlic spin. XO scallops ($14.95) at Chopstix are at the top of the heap, with just enough spiciness to showcase the sweetness and plushness of the bivalves.
Before the requisite fortune cookie, you may be presented with a cup of sweet red bean soup or another complimentary little dessert. Untrammeled ground for most Western palates, but these are delicious and not to be missed, especially if you're racing to a movie and choosing between this and Milk Duds.
There's a new swanky movie theater to race to. The Grove 16 theater opened in September, its regular theater seating plush and extra wide, its lobby retro-chic. Central Pasco's first movie house, the movies are mainstream first-runs, nothing particularly artsy, but rendered dramatically with booming Dolby 7.1 sound. The most exciting element, though, is what happens in the balcony seating of the 16 screening rooms.
Table service. For adults only, seats up there allow you to order from a full menu of appetizers, entrees, desserts and cocktails. Order before the movie starts, settle into the luxurious high-back leather rockers, then swivel the seat table into position when the server brings the goods. If you finish eating mid-movie, just swivel that table back out of the way.
It's slightly more expensive than a regular movie seat ($15 in advance on Fandango in the Cinebistro seats, $12.50 for the regular seats), and families with kids under 21 must instead eat in the bistro dining room before the show. As an idea, it's a multitasker's paradise — dinner and a show simultaneously, perfect for a date or girls' night out.
The fly in the ointment is that the food is not very good. After what was described as an "edible hello" (nacho cheese-dusted popcorn), we did what we could to dispatch popcorn shrimp ($10), quite literally fried shrimp mixed with popcorn (each doing great harm to the other), and chicken wings ($9) tossed in an inky, viscous sauce.
Salads weren't much better, a Greek and a house (each $10) tossed with dressing so sharply vinegary that our lips hurt. And while a prime rib sandwich was edible, its curls of gray meat were far from attractive.
All that said, it's a good bet for cocktails and dessert, from a solid peanut butter pie ($8) to a cheery trio of cupcakes ($8) with the added drama of a little Pop Rocks topping. A long list of specialty cocktails ($8 to $11) and familiar wines (La Crema, Duck Horn, Sonoma Cutrer, most glasses $7 to $13) make it a great alternative to a gigantic, sweaty Diet Coke. As a matter of fact, a Sonoma Cutrer chard is not a half bad accompaniment to a tub of buttered popcorn.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.