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Re-enter the Dragon: A return visit to Lucky Dragon Café in Pleasant Hill

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Re-enter the Dragon: A return visit to Lucky Dragon Café in Pleasant Hill

Bryan Loofbourrow | Aug 26, 2003 05:16 PM

The first trip was exploration, this was the real thing: an announced event. There was an open invite on the board, so if you missed it, you have only yourself to blame. Was it as good as last time? Not quite. Was it still a superb meal? Yes, yes, yes. The dishes I was less enthusiastic about came at the end of the meal, so I need to allow for the possibility that I was simply full. There were a lot of courses.

Some of the usual suspects were out of town, and previous-thread enthusiasts like Bryan Harrell managed to get there on their own, so it was a mere crowd of 12 that sat down this time. Perfect for one big table. They happen to have an extra-big round table, so we all had plenty of room.

We started out with a huge plate of cold appetizers that does not seem to appear on the menu. Visually striking, this plate held an assortment of what turned out to be astonishingly good food:

Jellyfish

The last time, the firm texture took me a bit by surprise. This time, I was ready for it, and ready to appreciate the tiny bit of chili heat that makes this version so wonderful. Great texture, my new Platonic ideal of what jellyfish should be. EXCELLENT

Pig Trotters

This was thin slices of pink lightly cured hamlike meat with a thick, gelatinous outer rim, and the occasional imbedded peppercorn. Gentle flavored, chewy, so delicious, reminiscent of some of the superb artistic charcuterie one gets in France. I've had this before, elsewhere, but this is the best version by a wide margin. EXCELLENT PLUS

Roast Pork

Thickly sliced and gently spiced, juicy without seeming greasy, full of the flavor of the meat, touched with sweetness but not too much. EXCELLENT MINUS

Stewed Beef

Or, as one of my tablemates put it, "Chinese pot roast". Thin slices of gingery, chewy brown meat with a lot of flavor. The texture is cold-pot roast, plus some firmer translucent bits of shank-like stuff; the flavor is better than any pot roast ever dreamed of being. VERY GOOD PLUS

Pickled Vegetables

Nothing fancy, long strips of carrots and cucumber and something firm and white, but absolutely delicious tangy-sweet fresh pickled flavor and crunchy texture. I love pickled veggies, and these were really nicely done. VERY GOOD PLUS

Cuttlefish

Thick slices of red-orange-bordered cuttlefish of perfect texture. The characteristic sweet-clam-like flavor was perfectly highlighted, but never cloying, as some versions can be. I don't know what was done to this, but it's the best cuttlefish I've had. EXCELLENT PLUS

Whew. That was some cold platter. Then, another cold dish:

12. Free-range Chicken Salad

A cold chicken, head present and accounted for, presented on a bed of fried bean thread noodles (the ones that puff up when you fry them). It tasted like a double-flavor chicken, very chickeny; the skin was firm and flavorful, the flesh much the same, salty-chickeny-tasty. EXCELLENT

21. Seafood Tofu Soup

Initially, the thick-cornstarchy texture of this soup gave me flashbacks to the bad gloppy take-out Chinese food of my youth, but no, though the mouthfeel was the same, the subtlety of flavors was in another world. Quiet seafood flavors, mostly scallop with a bit of shrimp here and there, some ribbons of eggwhite for thickening, bits of tofu. Delicate and delicious. VERY GOOD

110. Honey Walnut Prawns

Delicious, fresh-seeming shrimp. Thick, runnily gelatinous coating that takes some getting used to texturewise, though it's delicious. As time went on, I got used to the texture, and the flavors helped charm me into an overall very favorable impression of the dish. VERY GOOD PLUS

Salt and Pepper Crab (don't see it on the menu)

Light breading. I don't have much detail in my notes: "delicious, perfectly cooked, tasty crab." What else is there to say? Instead of writing more, I fell to, and devoured this superb rendition of the dish. EXCELLENT

79. Peking Duck (advance order required, menu doesn't say how far in advance)

a) The skin course

Unlike many places I've been, the skin course was really just skin. I really like that approach. Large, puffed-up versions of lotus-leaf buns. Scallion shreds and hoisin. Fried puffy shrimp chips that others put in their makeshift skin sandwiches for texture, but which I omitted for fear of obscuring the skin's flavor and texture. The skin was fabulous, very crisp and full of caramelization flavors. The bun was yeasty and of perfect texture. Some of the best I've had in the U.S. (Hong Kong ducks are in another league, but that's another story). EXCELLENT PLUS

b) The minced duck meat course

Take some of the warm meat, wrap it in a crisp cold iceberg lettuce leaf, roll, and crunch. I love the contrasting heat and texture of this sort of thing, and this was a really nice salty-smoky version, though the meat flavor of the soft duck flesh was not as intense as I expected. In contrast to many places, the lettuce leaves were picture-perfect. VERY GOOD PLUS

140. Sweet and Sour Pork

It wasn't bright red this time, don't know why. There also seemed to be a bit more coating on the pork, and less caramelized pork flavor. But, hey, crunchy, tangy sweet, darned good, just seems different, a notch less "on." VERY GOOD PLUS

Stir-fried ling cod fillet pieces, with snow peas, celery, yellow chives, straw mushrooms (I think this is the first half of an off-menu thing called "Live fish, two ways")

Ling cod was less successful in this dish than the sturgeon we had on the last visit; more subtly flavored, therefore a bit more intruded on by the veggies. I'm impressed that the chef was able to stir-fry this fragile fish without it falling apart. Very tasty, but the memory of that sturgeon overshadowed the experience a bit. VERY GOOD PLUS

Oxtail in Clay Pot (don't see it on the menu)

This was stewed oxtail, in a thick, tangy tomato-based stew-broth. I love oxtail, but was not particularly impressed by this version. For my taste, the oxtail was somewhat undercooked, too chewy, and holding too much tightly-wound beef flavor into the meat, rather than having it soften and enhance the broth, as more cooking time would have done. Reasonably tasty, but could have been so much better. It's the first time in a while that I've had oxtail where I wasn't feverishly mining the bones for every meaty or gelatinous bit. GOOD MINUS

Stir-fried A-choy (aka "A tsai" aka "A cai" aka "The A Vegetable") (off-menu, as seasonal veggies so often are)

Aargh. After 8 experimental batches at home, I got my A choy tasting really, really good. But not this good. What is the chef doing? Rich, with a perfect tinge of bitterness, and tiny chunks of a very soft-tasting garlic, perhaps elephant garlic. Someone suggested that maybe some chicken broth is needed to achieve that extra richness. EXCELLENT PLUS

Stewed Fish (this was the second half of "Live fish, two ways")

The rest of the fish -- head, flesh-encrusted bones, and so on, stewed with fried tofu in a rich sauce. Salty, a bit too salty, lively, oily, delicious, beautiful texture. Ling cod may not have been a great match for the stir-fry, but it was perfect for this preparation. Full of character. Less salt would have merited a higher rating. VERY GOOD PLUS

E-fu noodles

Soft, soy-enhanced noodles with bits of straw mushroom. Oiler than last time, too oily for me to confront when I'm this stuffed with good food. Nicely savory, but again, too salty, so I just had a bite or two. I'll omit a rating because I have no idea if I was capable of being fair to this plate of noodles at this point. Another diner, who dines here often, pointed out that this is her first visit on which some things were too salty. An aberration, it appears.

94. Black Pepper Beef (I think)

Beef tenderloin with green peppers, in a peppery sauce. I was just way too full. It was nicely peppery and tender, but just didn't really come together for me. Don't know if that's me, or the dish.

Fried Bananas in Syrup (don’t see it on the menu)

Nice tanginess and appropriately-restrained sweetness. Quite tasty. Wow I'm full. GOOD PLUS, at least.

So, the taster, and possibly the dishes, sort of petered out at the end. If only I hadn't had seconds on crab, and cuttlefish, and…but I think that's too much to expect; they were so good. The dishes weren't as uniformly excellent as on the last visit, but there were a large number of superb dishes, and I'd return here in a heartbeat. I'd just know to be selective in my ordering. I'd love to return here with a big group, both because it was seriously fun, and for another crack at that awesome cold platter. Extra points if you think duck skin is gross, and routinely give it away to your dining companions.

-- Bryan

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