Review: Ernest Chinese deserves all the love it’s getting

Photo by Anne Braly / Pork dumplings at Ernest Chinese are handmade and served with a tasty sauce.
Photo by Anne Braly / Pork dumplings at Ernest Chinese are handmade and served with a tasty sauce.

Chinese restaurants can be found throughout Chattanooga, and most have pretty much the same menus without a whole lot of difference in flavors. That is, until Ernest Chinese joined the pack, becoming the first Chinese restaurant in the Southside/Main Street area.

(READ MORE: Restaurant Scene: Ernest gives Chattanooga elevated Chinese takeout and tiki cocktails)

Many of the dishes on the menu will have a familiar ring to them, such as sesame chicken, orange chicken, fried rice with several choices of protein add-ons, egg rolls and other standards.

But that's where similarities between Ernest Chinese and other Chinese eateries stop. The flavors are what you might expect from a restaurant that focuses more on quality ingredients than serving mass quantities of food on a buffet.

Chef Brett Norton has done an amazing job of tweaking the Chinese dishes that most of us know to make them his own.


THE MENU

Rather than a menu that's two or three pages long, the menu at Ernest Chinese has just one page that includes soups, appetizers, fried rice, dishes, side, dishes and entrées. It sounds as though making a decision would be simple, but it's not. The description of each dish is full of intrigue and wonder.

Our order included a lychee martini, hot and sour soup, General Ern's Chicken, shrimp fried rice, dan dan noodles, Gung Bao chicken and sesame chicken.

Yes, it sounds like a lot of food, and it was. But when you can't make up your mind — and there were two of us dining — ordering a few different dishes seemed the thing to do. I wanted to see just how different Ernest Chinese was from my neighborhood Chinese place, and man was it ever.

For starters, there are several craft cocktails on the menu with whimsical names, and lots of different ingredients that I've never experienced, like the Peking Punch with toasted sesame-infused toki, Japanese whiskey.

I chose the lychee martini, a Japanese gin-based drink with lychee, vanilla liqueur and rice vinegar because it sounded pretty safe and also was garnished with a lychee, a fruit I love. It was a very pleasant way to cap off my afternoon before starting my evening.

I was a little concerned when I saw the description of the Gong Bao chicken: peanuts, spicy, numbing, floral. At the same time I was curious and discovered that while it was spicy, it was not overly so unless one happened to bite down on one of the peppers, which were obvious and easy to bypass. Of all the dishes, I believe this was my favorite. I was told, though, that the sesame chicken is the house favorite. I can see why as it's very tame for the average Chattanooga palate as far as the spice level is concerned.

  photo  Photo by Anne Braly / Like all dishes at Ernest Chinese, General Ern's Chicken isn't heavily sauced so as not to overwhelm the other flavors.
 
 

One thing that makes all of the dishes different from any other Chinese restaurant in Chattanooga is that the proteins, whether it's shrimp, chicken or beef, are not swimming in sauce. The sauces at Ernest are more of a glaze, allowing the flavor of the meats to come through. That was such a wonderful change.

The General Ern's chicken was perfect, with just the right amount of spice. The dan dan noodles were, as I was told, perhaps the spiciest dish on the menu, but I was still able to eat them in between sips of water.

If you're at all hesitant to try one of the spicy dishes, I would recommend the sesame chicken or the orange chicken with its nice orange zest. Also, the fried rice with shrimp, beef or chicken is a good choice. The smokiness of the fried rice mixed with a nice helping of vegetables and large shrimp was delicious bite after bite.

(READ MORE: Restaurant Scene: Is Chattanooga ready for authentic Chinese food, or nah?)

The Dish on Dining

— Where: Ernest Chinese, 55 Johnson St.

— Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

— Entree price range: $10-$20

— Reservations: Not accepted; walk-in only

— Phone: 423-602-5980

— Online: ernestchinese.com

 

  photo  Photo by Anne Braly / Crowds gather for drinks and dinner at Ernest Chinese, the first Chinese restaurant to open on the Southside.
 
 

THE SPACE

If you ever dined at Flying Squirrel, now in its reincarnation as Ernest Chinese, you know the layout: a long bar with seats on the right as you walk in. To the left along the wall are cozy, oversized booths. In the center are tall tables with no seats, a great place to rest your drink while waiting on a dining table or visiting with friends.

(READ MORE: Restaurant Scene: Flying Squirrel to close and reopen as Ernest Chinese)

The dining area is very modern with floor-to-ceiling windows along three of the walls, brightening the restaurant with natural light. Lights of varying lengths hang from the ceiling and highlight a large spray of pink Oriental flowers hanging above the bar.


THE SERVICE

We arrived right around 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon and encountered just a handful of people in the restaurant. Within 30 minutes, the room was buzzing with chatter, and by the time we left about an hour later, seats were filled and it was standing room only.

As busy as it was, the servers worked as a team, and it took just minutes for food to be delivered correctly with no issues.


THE VERDICT

Chef Norton has done an excellent job of bringing not only a new taste to the Southside area but also to Chattanooga. Bravo. I've often wondered why Chattanooga cannot have a change of pace when it comes to Chinese food. Visit and see for yourself what's been missing in town. And FYI: Who is Ernest? I asked that question and learned he was a six-toed cat who used to hang out around the restaurant and was much loved by owner and restaurateur Max Poppel and his business partner Dan Rose.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.


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