Cate Zone Chinese Cuisine Excels in Its Second Location

The Chesterfield iteration also offers the delights of the Dongbei region

May 22, 2024 at 11:33 am
Highlights from Cate Zone Chinese Cuisine include (clockwise from top left) Szechuan boiling fish, Triple Vegetables with Brown Sauce, Cumin Beef with Cilantro, and Noodle with Brown Sauce.
Highlights from Cate Zone Chinese Cuisine include (clockwise from top left) Szechuan boiling fish, Triple Vegetables with Brown Sauce, Cumin Beef with Cilantro, and Noodle with Brown Sauce. MABEL SUEN

Cate Zone Chinese Cuisine (24 Four Seasons Shopping Center, Chesterfield; 314-392-9624) has been prudent. The restaurant specializing in northeast Chinese cuisine has opened a second location in Chesterfield where the Asian population is the second largest ethnic group, accounting for 13.1 percent of residents in the 2010 Census. It joins a strip where the breadth of international cuisine makes you feel quite pleased to be in this “melting pot.” Seoul Taco is here, so is Chimi’s Fresh Mex. Talayna’s Pizza and Pasta occupies a spot, and so does Saint Louis Bread Co. 

Cate Zone is owned by Daniel Ma, his wife Nancy Zhu and Quincy Lin, who come from the northeast area of China, which borders Mongolia, Russia and the Korean peninsula. It’s chillier there. Consequently, the regional Dongbei cuisine is heartier, a little more substantial. The menus are slightly different in each location. Find hot pot on Olive Boulevard, but housemade dumplings in Chesterfield. In both, you’ll be happy to find Cate Zone’s refined twist on sweet and sour pork, and Hot Crisp Fish, which may be the dish it is best known for. The other good news is that a second location is bound to lessen wait times and alleviate the swell of diners in the snug University City space.

But while I’m confident ordering a taco or — if I’ve completely lost my wits — a bread bowl filled with mac and cheese, I’m a little nervy about Chinese food and asking for much beyond a fortune cookie. So, for the purpose of this review and not sounding like a nitwit, I called in the troops: Iain, my Scottish friend, who also happens to be the managing editor of Sauce, who also happens to have lived in China for an extended period of time, came with me to Cate Zone.

I may need Iain when it comes to Chinese restaurant menus, but I’m good at assessing decor, and Cate Zone is a cool cat — more along the lines of a smooth hotel dining room than a strip mall eatery in the ’burbs. It’s dark and minimalist: walls paneled with coffee-colored slats and agreeably comfy chairs that are upholstered in something leathery and umber-colored. Yeah, it feels pretty luxe. Even though you parked at Talayna’s, you’re feeling kinda smug to be here and not there.

And I was in safe hands with Iain at the table. He comes from Edinburgh but spent 14 years working in Beijing. Though it also felt a little wacky: London me sitting with Edinburgh him in a Chinese restaurant in Chesterfield, Missouri. To add to that disconnect, when our server came along, Iain started speaking Mandarin(!). It almost did my head in. 

I’d expected the menu at Cate Zone to be the visual equivalent of a Zhonghua Cihai, but fortunately it was more like Miffy at the Circus — big glossy pictures and large-printed simple words. To boot, there are chili emojis, little red warning signs, which are comforting, because when Cate Zone comes up in conversation, everyone seems to talk about heat. Or at least, I do; I’ve been talking about heat ever since the first Cate Zone opened on Olive Boulevard in 2017 and I got my socks knocked off by Szechuan Boiling Fish. Although that dish wasn’t just hot; it wasn’t as simple as that. More on this later.

click to enlarge The dining room of Cate Zone's outpost in Chesterfield has the look of a swanky hotel dining room. - MABEL SUEN
The dining room of Cate Zone's outpost in Chesterfield has the look of a swanky hotel dining room.

We didn’t have an appetizer. We jumped over dumplings and fried mini buns, and Orleans Seasoning Fried Wings (is there no escape?), and got straight into some seriously hearty platters. I want to say Iain sold me immediately on the pork intestine with brown sauce, but he didn’t even try. And (shame on me) I didn’t bring it up. He asked, rather, if I might like the Triple Vegetables in Brown Sauce — the Chinese equivalent, he said, of something homey and British. So even though the words “brown sauce” and “British” in the same paragraph give me an acute attack of the willies, I said, “Why not?” I was expecting something gloppy and clinging, uniformly brown and unpleasantly glistening. I was way off: The sauce was deeply, cozily flavored, each bite a different stop on the crisp-to-soft continuum: On one end, snappy red and green peppers; on the other, silky-soft eggplant reminiscent of warm childhood suppers. The potatoes — cut in long, fat wedges and amply coated in caramelly “gravy” — sat somewhere in the middle, bolstering my eternal love of the dependable, flexible spud. 

Then Iain said the Noodle with Brown Sauce would be a fine thing to order. “Too much of a good thing?” I wondered. But on the page, it looked like a bowl of my father’s spaghetti Bolognese, which he made with about 15 different meats and a whole bottle of red wine. “I’m in,” I said, forgetting it was Tuesday morning, and I had sensible things to do later. Iain said it was best to stir everything together, because around the side were little piles of julienned vegetables. So while he did that, I carried on sneaking potatoes. It turns out the brown sauce in this dish is an entirely different beast. And calling itself “brown sauce” seems a bit like Cinderella thinking she looks frumpy in her dress. “Whoa, don’t sell yourself short, Cinders!” Because this sauce — made with ground beef — is also made with fermented soy beans, which means it’s at once soothingly familiar, at once deliciously strange. While hoisin (also made with soy beans) came to mind, this sauce’s deep, rich earthiness elevated it far above the more commonplace bottled condiment.

click to enlarge Cate Zone's Noodle with Brown Sauce has the funk of fermented soybeans. - MABEL SUEN
Cate Zone's Noodle with Brown Sauce has the funk of fermented soybeans.

I love cumin and cilantro most in all the world, so I saluted Iain’s choice of Cumin Beef with Cilantro. This tender, salty meat scruffed with stalks and leaves of cilantro is a throwback, he said, to Muslim and Mongolian influences. Long ago and far away, but right up my street. 

“Been there, done that,” I said to Iain when he suggested ordering the boiling fish again. Although part of me was a little interested in refreshing my flavor banks, because — in all the time since I ate it so many years ago — I’ve never been able to conjure that wildly esoteric taste, let alone describe it, or (oof) even say I liked it that much. Iain said peanut milk is a good antidote for fiery food. But there was only soy, and a few other drinks like hot tea, sodas and a couple of beers. We decided to order the Hot Crisp Fish instead. It arrived — a craggy, searingly hot, golden heap of battered fish scattered with dangerous-looking peppers and, in amongst them, some duplicitous little peppercorns. I took a bite. There it was, that Szechuan Boiling Fish flavor all over again. “Wow,” I said, putting my chopsticks down. 

Szechuan “flower” peppercorns are to pepper as Pop Rocks are to Cow Tails. They’re not in the same zip code. I know I shouldn’t say they made the Boiling Fish or the Crisp Hot Fish soapy, but I think I’m going to, if only to get across the hotly numbing otherness of this spice which, like Pop Rocks, has more to do with experience — at least for a Westerner — than just flavor. 

But here’s the thing: Strange can become familiar can become delicious in very short order. In the time it took me and Iain to finish that platter (which, BTW, was no time at all), strange became familiar became thrilling. Which is good, because next week, we’re going back for those intestines.

Cate Zone Chinese Cuisine is open Tues. through Sun 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Closed Mon.

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