Remember the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”? Besides having music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge, it’s most known for the trouble it had opening. It was technically complex with special effects that included actors flying on harnesses over the heads of the audience.
It is also known for having the longest preview period in the history of Broadway, 182 performances. One of the reasons the previews went on for so long was to deal with the technical problems. But the producers also knew that as long as the show was in previews, the critics would consider it off limits. But after six months, the critics decided enough was enough and one by one started attending and reviewing.
Soft opening is the restaurant equivalent of a Broadway preview. Chuan Lu Gardens is having a soft opening almost as epic as Spider-Man.
I first visited the new eastside location for Chuan Lu Gardens, whose original restaurant is in downtown Orlando’s Mills 50 district, in mid March. Even then the restaurant had been open for about three weeks. But a handwritten note taped to the door said “Soft Opening.” I went in anyway, knowing that I wouldn’t be writing a review from that visit. Indeed, the restaurant was in need of more rehearsal time, and it didn’t even involve servers flying overhead.
I checked back after two weeks and the sign was still taped to the door. It was still there two weeks after that. And still there when I stopped by this week.
Enough, I thought, time for this show to open.
The new Chuan Lu Gardens occupies a freestanding building that was once an Arby’s. This CLG is different from the downtown version in that it functions as a quick-serve operation: place your order at the counter, pay and take a seat. The food will be delivered when ready.
A limited lunch menu nevertheless has a good sampling of some of the dishes that have made Chuan Lu a favorite in the Mills 50 district. The lunch specials are a bargain at $7.95, though I wish they weren’t served in such a cheesy way, on plastic trays that look as though they belong attached to a high chair.
It seemed that spicing isn’t as forward as it is in the original restaurant, though the food is far from bland. I ordered the Chili and Sour Potato with Shredded Pork as my main dish. Except for the fact that it contained no pork, shredded or otherwise, it was an interesting dish. The “noodles” are fashioned out of thinly shredded potatoes, so there is a slight crunch. A bit of Szechuan pepper gave it a metalic heat that had a pleasant afterglow.
The fried rice and hot and sour soup with tiny cubes of tofu was OK. The fried rice less so. The tightly wound and greasily fried egg roll, meant to be dipped in the splash of duck sauce in one of the tray’s compartments, was not worthy of Chuan Lu.
However, an appetizer of Szechuan Wontons was wonderful, just the sort of thing that made the original Chuan Lu a dining destination. The dumplings were delightfully limp with an unctuous mouthfeel. They were filled with bits of pork and dotted with chopped scallions and swimming in a peppery oil. Delicious.
Service is one of the things that keeps the soft opening sign attached to the door. Still, when I pointed out that my dish did not have the pork it was supposed to, a server left and eventually delivered a completely redone dish. I had finished at this point, and she gladly packaged it up to go. For the record, the pork was still pretty hard to locate.
I’m not sure why the restaurant is struggling so to officially open. It might be expected of neophytes, but the people involved here know how to run a good restaurant.
After all these weeks, it’s time for opening night.
Chuan Lu Gardens is at 11891 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-282-3388.