317 Buttermilk Pike
Fort Mitchell, KY
I’ve really struggled with this review because I like this place a lot, and I like that the family-owned and operated restaurant has managed to stay on course for 25 years – even as the number of Chinese restaurants in the area multiplies each year - but the last few dining experiences at The Oriental Wok have been disappointing for me.
The restaurant is quite elegant with white linens, a piano bar, and deep red and gold tones accentuating the vast collection of Chinese artifacts that includes a real rickshaw. Designed with Feng Shui principles, the large dining room has a soothing calmness about it even when it is bustling with activity. Owners Mike and Helen Wong are hands-on; Helen greets customers upon arrival, and Mike stops by each table to chat with guests. It is this personable service and exquisite décor that elevates Oriental Wok above the myriad other Chinese restaurants in town, but it is the food that is sometimes lacking.
It’s not that the food is bad. Quite the contrary - it’s darned good…if it arrives at the table hot. See, the thing is, we have been to Oriental Wok at least a half dozen times in as many months, and every time bar one food has arrived at the table lukewarm instead of hot, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Does it sit around getting cold while the other dishes are being prepared? Are the servers slacking off or forgetting it is there? I just don’t know. What I do know is that eating tepid food is offputting, especially stir-fried food, which is supposed to be served piping hot.
Part of the problem might be that the restaurant is a victim of its success. They host a lot of events in the adjoining spacious banquet room which unfortunately means that sometimes diners in the regular dining area are neglected. There does seem to be a correlation between a banquet or reception being held and lukewarm food arriving at our table, and I’ve noticed that the wait staff is otherwise preoccupied, so essentials like refills or reorders of drinks are slow.
On a recent visit we stopped in for a late lunch and the waiter seemed to be rushing us through everything because the staff was preparing for a reception later in the evening. We felt as though we were a distraction to them. It happened to be my Mom’s first visit to the restaurant, and I was embarrassed that her experience was the opposite of what I had expected. It’s a shame too, because the food is usually excellent. I think their hot & sour soup is the best around. It’s jam-packed with delicately slivered bamboo, tofu and tree ear (wood ear) mushrooms, and the spicy base will light you up for sure. So, so good.
There are eight vegetarian entrées on the menu and all are well worth the money – if they arrive hot. On my most recent visit the Szechwan Green Beans let me down, not because they were tepid – they did arrive sizzling hot - but because although the menu noted the dish as "spicy" there was absolutely no heat to it whatsoever. I would have sent it back had our waiter been anywhere in the vicinity, but he disappeared for the duration of our meal. I ended up eating a very bland mix of green beans and mushrooms, and neither my father-in-law nor I got to order a second round of drinks with our meals. The waiter also referred to my father-in-law as "boss" every time he spoke to him, which was cute the first few times but got old quickly, and wasn’t really in keeping with the upscale nature of the restaurant.
When the waiter finally did make an appearance – around the time we finished eating - I informed him of my disappointment with the Szechwan Green Beans. He told me the reason it is prepared that way is because "it can always be made hotter, but not the reverse." He then presented me with a fiery pepper oil to add to the dish. All well and good, but why was the fiery oil not brought out with my meal so I could have used it?
My non-veggie husband, on the other hand, was very pleased with his selection of Moo Shu Pork, which was large enough to have fed a family of four. Not only was it very flavorful, there was enough left over for him and his father to nosh on the following day.
There are some nice touches: the drinks menu includes some fun "exotic" specialties served in groovy tiki-glasses. The Volcano Hawaii is large enough for four people and sports flaming lava rocks! How cool is that? Another nice perk is the complimentary chambord after-dinner drink, and if you are celebrating a special occasion at Oriental Wok, be sure to let them know – they’ll wheel out the big gong and clang to your health.
It's a nice restaurant run by a nice family and even when the food comes out tepid it's good...but when it comes out hot it is fantastic. Here's hoping yours is the latter.