At the Table: Serene setting, beautiful dishes set Sparx in Halfmoon apart

Service also outstanding at Halfmoon Chinese restaurant
Sparx Fine Chinese Cuisine interior; inset, from left: drunken chicken and crispy sesame shredded beef.
Sparx Fine Chinese Cuisine interior; inset, from left: drunken chicken and crispy sesame shredded beef.

There’s no evidence that dining at a Chinese restaurant in the United States increases a person’s risk of being exposed to COVID-19. And New York state is doing an outstanding job of keeping the public aware of the location and number of cases in the state. 

But, “In the last two weeks, business has gone down,” said Peter Wang, owner of Sparx Fine Chinese Cuisine in Halfmoon. On weeknights, he’s only doing about half the number of dinners he used to.

Sparx is not alone. The New York Post reports that in New York City, “business at Chinese-owned establishments has plummeted by as much as 60 percent.” Some restaurants may not recover, it said.

Patrice and I visited Sparx on Route 9 just north of the Walmart shopping center and enjoyed our visit very much. The food was outstanding and reasonably priced. Service was terrific. You’d be missing out if you give Sparx a pass.

Patrice liked the ambiance of the dining room.

“It’s very calming,” she said, perhaps as a result of cool watery blues and warm yellows, the pale wood floor and cheerful lanterns dangling over the bar.

Carved wood screens, paper lanterns and wooden ceiling beams contribute an Asian quality. And no wonder it’s attractive and serene: Wang and his wife are graduates of Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Art and Design.

Early on a weekday evening, we had our choice of tables. There were a few other diners, and some of the barstools were occupied by folks in business attire.

Our polite server welcomed us and offered to go over the menu. Service was thorough, plates were brought and taken away at the right times, and we were looked after well during our visit.

Patrice and I shared appealing crystal shrimp dumplings ($8), plump and pink, with rice wrappers that became gelatinous and transparent from steaming.

Served in their bamboo cooking basket, they come with three accompanying sauces. We favored the milder soy-based sauces and gave the chili sauce a pass. The shrimp were mild and tasted of seawater. 

The other starter was drunken chicken ($8), a specialty of Zhejiang cuisine, found in a province south of Shanghai.

One of the eight traditional cuisines of China, it’s known for light, fresh dishes that maintain the essential flavor of the ingredients. Rice is used more than noodles in this eastern part of China, and dishes are light, focusing on seasonal ingredients. Soups, seafood and stir-fries are popular here.

About the chicken: It’s served cold, a half small chicken with incredibly tender, sweetly seasoned white and dark meat. Poaching doesn’t produce the most appealing look, but what it lacks in color it more than makes up for in flavor. The liquid is fruity and quite fragrant, with a definite smell and taste of wine, and other seasonings such as star anise to back it up. The flavor goes deeply into the meat, and it’s especially pronounced in the skin.

The drunken chicken is served chopped into slices, Peking-duck style. You have to be careful to avoid shards of bone. I loved the flavor of the dish, but with splinters of bone throughout I can’t recommend it. However, they will cut it any way you like, said Wang, who is accommodating: “Anything is doable unless it’s a crazy idea.”

Patrice ordered snow peas with mushroom and chicken ($13), a lovely dish of stir-fried white meat chicken with trimmed, crisp snow peas and sliced mushrooms that looked like they came from a can. Sparx makes a white sauce for the dish. It’s not creamy, but light and thickened. It tasted of mushrooms but did not camouflage the delicate flavors of the ingredients. It brought everything together without taking over.

“The chicken doesn’t have a lot of flavor,” said Patrice, noting a weakness of white meat. “The snow peas are so crisp,” not to mention fresh and colorful.

The brown rice accompanying “had a lot of chew” and was “almost nutty.” She was pleased with her meal.

I usually think twice about ordering a moderately priced dish made with beef, but that is nothing to worry about at Sparx. That’s because the meat they use for the crispy sesame shredded beef ($16) is flank steak. It’s a cut that becomes so tender with fast, hot cooking it can be cut with a fork.

Sliced into manageable strips, each piece of beef had been dipped into the lightest batter, fried individually, then tossed in a sticky dark sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. “I love how it’s crispy,” said Patrice. It is addicting: The beef is tender and the sauce sweet.

“We use flank steak in 90 percent of our beef dishes,” said Wang. It’s good quality, flavorful and tender. “Crispy sesame shredded beef is a top seller,” he added. I can see why. I’d order it again.

It came with a side of short-grained sticky white rice that is substantial and filling, sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

Sparx presents beautiful dishes. Pinterest-worthy beetroot roses with baby spinach leaves graced our plates. 

The restaurant also gets points for neatly packed leftovers in boxes made of recycled paper.

Our bill was presented before we’d thought to order dessert. It came to a very reasonable $55.88 with tax and tip. By this time the dining room was about half full. 

Wang is hopeful. He tries to keep up the spirits of his staff, telling them the coronavirus crisis will pass.

“I hope for the best and hope the businesses survive,” he said of Chinese restaurants.

We need to support our local businesses and neighbors, so head over to Sparx for some fine Chinese cuisine. I’m going back soon for more crispy sesame shredded beef.

Sparx Fine Chinese Cuisine

WHERE: 1570 Route 9, Halfmoon; (518) 280-0020
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $58.88 with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Accommodations made for children’s meals. ADA compliant. Parking lot.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

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