Chinese 101: Han 202 offers an introduction to fine dining in five courses

Let’s be clear: Bridgeport’s new Asian-fusion restaurant Han 202 is not for seasoned foodies or anyone serious about their Chinese food. For gourmands, its half-hearted nods towards French techniques and cross-cuisine flavor pairings can’t help but disappoint. For lovers of Asia’s ethnic food, the kitchen’s weak spices and Americanized menu will leave them longing for the pungent offerings in Chinatown. But Han 202 provides a valuable service to diners unfamiliar with tasting menus and the use of whole chilies, easing them into the world of haute (or at least middling) cuisine while comforting them with the familiar taste of takeout.

Han 202, named for the founding year of the Han dynasty, offers a nightly five-course prix fixe menu for $20. The restaurant is small, and the staff encourages intimacy by refusing to seat parties of more than four people without a four-day advance reservation. In the dimly-lit dining room, overstuffed chairs and the perfume of incense mix strangely with edgily modern touches like distressed steel doorframes, creating an atmosphere both quirky and amateur.

The menu reflects this dual nature, presenting comforting standards like crab Rangoon and sesame chicken alongside rack of lamb with bonito plum sauce and spicy king crab soup. Unfortunately for Han 202’s grand aims, some of the less adventurous choices were the best, while more ambitious dishes fell flat both in concept and in execution.

Miso soup is the first course; while the menu lists interesting variations like vegetable soup or spicy soup with king crab, they are in reality all the same mild but warming miso soup with various additions dropped in. Salads were more diverse and creative, and probably the highlight of the meal. A cucumber and imitation crab salad was a wonderful palate cleanser, although we had not already had enough flavor to merit the cleansing. A simple salad of julienned green apples was made more interesting with lemon and capers, and made magnificent in a third dish when covered with thin strips of tender and savory beef with lemongrass.

Han 202’s appetizer selection covers the range of pan-Asian standards, from Japanese gyoza to Thai fish cakes. The one vegetarian option was vegetable tempura, sizeable but sadly mushy. Fried but ungreasy spring rolls came generously filled with jumbo shrimp. Crab Rangoon, supposedly stuffed with king crab, arrived incongruously arranged, two to a plate and artfully drizzled with orange and brown sauces. The creamy white filling made them indistinguishable from any takeout joint’s fried wontons, but the sauce made it special: the duck sauce could have been squeezed from packets, but there was something in there that made us dip our fingers in and taste again. “Is that–it can’t be chocolate, can it?” I asked my friend. I was intrigued by the slightly smoky sweetness it gave to the single-note duck sauce. We asked the waitress, who confirmed that it was chocolate syrup. Once named, the sauce tasted distinctly more like Hershey’s, but it was a genuinely surprising and pleasing decision.

Creative sauce pairings do not serve Han 202’s entrées so well. Again, the menu had no vegetarian options listed, but the waitress told our vegetarian companion to choose any sauce listed for his vegetables. This exemplifies the kitchen’s approach: meat and fish are accompanied by sauces that seem to have no relation to their particular flavors, drowning out or clashing with each other. With the exception of Mongolian beef and General Tao’s chicken, every main dish is a piece of protein plated next to a pool of sauce, and among four diners the formula quickly became stale. Strip steak was competently cooked, and the thick miso sauce was an earthy accent that worked well. But the rack of lamb and duck were criminally neglected. Though neither was overcooked, the mildly-flavored lamb needed something herbal or bright to bring out its meatiness. Instead it drowned in a cloyingly sweet and fermented plum sauce. The duck was similarly overwhelmed by its thick brown Sichuan bean sauce.

Han 202 does have its moments, but they seem accidental. The fake vanilla ice cream dessert is dreadful by itself, but a tiny dollop of tomato-mango granita on top makes it a thousand times better; when the granita is gone all too soon, the rest of the ice cream isn’t worth eating.

Let’s hope Han 202 finds more perfect tiny touches soon.
Han 202, 605 W. 31st St. Sunday-Thursday, 4:30pm-10pm, Friday-Saturday, 4:30pm-10:30pm. (312)949-1314.