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Imperial Cuisine of the Forbidden Palace of Mukden

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Imperial Cuisine of the Forbidden Palace of Mukden

RST | Jan 7, 2004 09:23 PM

Wiv called me out of the blue last night from his car and we ended up having three (yes, three!) consecutive dinners. Talk of chowing on the heroic scale! It would have been four dinners in all if Lem's at 75th had been open when we got there at midnight. (On our way home, we drove north on State, past the old 58th location, which is now completely rehabbed: Wiv wept when he realized that that Lem's is NEVER coming back again.)

Our third dinner was at Captain Curt's. This stop, and the planned fourth stop at Lem's were supposed to serve as warm-up sessions for tomorrow's marathon Chicago southside BBQ tasting. (A group of us, headed by Joel, Wiv and ReneG are taking a crack at ReneG's
list of 100+ southside BBQ houses: we'll be on the road for up to 10-12 hours.) But neither Wiv and I had ever been at Captain Curt's and we wanted to test the board's current lukewarm opinion of the place. We shared an order of ribs and tips. We took copious notes which I will try to integrate later into some kind of report on the BBQ tasting. On a scale where Lem's gets an A, Wiv gave the BBQ here a C. I was kinder and gave it a B-, possibly even a B. Gary thought that the meat had good porkiness but did not have the layers of depth that proper wood-smoking brings to meat. They DO use wood (hickory) mixed with the briquettes, but the wood element is in fact quite restrained. The bottled sauce does not taste industrial at all and is quite good. I think that I had once given Mary's BBQ (on Pulaski) a C and Curt's is clearly way above Mary's in quality which is why I had to use a B-. (On the other hand, Mary's has my vote for the title of "cutest" shack in Chicago.) I gotta rethink my whole ranking scale tomorrow.

Before that we discovered a new 3-day-old restaurant at Chinatown Mall:

Dragon King
Chinese Name: seng (saint) lung (dragon) hsuan (balcony, chariot). I think that this name might refer to an architectural element in the Forbidden Palace of Shenyang. There is a drawing of a dragon pillar on the cover of the menu.

2138 S. Archer Avenue
(in the former Seven Treasures space in the mall)
(312) 881-0168

The owners are from Liaoning province and this new restaurant is a specialist in dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) cuisine. So this puts our Chicago count of rare dongbei menus at 2 (Ed's of course is the other one, although the separate dongbei menu at Ed's is a mere subset of the long-Beijingese menu//the 2 chefs at Ed's are from Shenyang.) These are quite possibly the only dongbei kitchens in the US. There are now two place in Chicago to compare and contrast "bei kuo ta la p'i" and other northern dishes. Chicago Chinatown rocks!!!

To top it all off, not only does the restaurant offer a dongbei menu, it claims to offer the Imperial Cuisine of the old Forbidden Palace of the Manchus at Mukden (Mukden = tartar name for Shenyang). In addition to the regular menu full of dongbei specialties, they also offer a 24-course Manchu-Han Imperial Banquet for 10-12 people at $400!!! A group of hounds has already been making plans to head there soon to try this banquet menu. The Manchu-Han Imperial Banquet is a nationalized format and so has over the centuries lost its Manchu/dongbei specificity. Most of the dishes should be recognizable to those who to dining luxuriously in HongKong. I am far more intrigued by the everyday dongbei dishes on the menu but still, it might be kinda fun to try something like this as a change of pace. For a mere $400, I really don't think that we will be getting bear paws, but still. I am interpreting the revival of such banquet menus as having to do with a current Chinese nostalgia for its Imperial past. On the cover of the Dragon King menu, there is a long explanation of the restaurant's history. Apparently, the namesake restaurant is historic: it was supposedly the first "restaurant" to introduce dishes from the Imperial kitchen to the public during the early 1800s (sort of what happened in France after the revolution). We were told that this "Dragon King" is the 16th branch: that there are many other branches throughout China but that this Chicago branch is the first one in the US. On the wall are several reproductions of old b/w photos of Mukden circa 1910.

Wiv and I sampled an astonishing lamb soup here. It's the first line on the "soup" listing: House Special Lamb Soup (seng-saint/lung-dragon/chuan-whole/yang-lamb/t'ang-soup). It is an extraordinarily pure, and "classical" soup, but at the same time so evocative of the endless wild expanses of the desert beyond. The flavors are very clean but the wild, almost gamey dimension of lamb ("lamb-ness" if you wish) comes through with every sip. The name suggests that a whole lamb is used in the soup and in fact it does seem as if every cut and type of offal is used. Each variety of meat and tissue has been cut expertly and precisely to strips less than 1/8" inch wide to provide a range of differing textures and flavors. The diner is constantly wondering which sinew, which nerve, which tendon, which part of the skin is providing the specific burst of flavor and the specific textural sensation. This is a great dish to compare and contrast with the Iraqi lamb's head soup (the Baghdadi pacha) available on Saturdays at 6-7 various places in the Kedzie/Lawrence and near Devon/Western areas.

In addition, Wiv and I had a plate of delicious celery (Asian celery) dumplings and a simple little salad of slivered green peppers, cilantro and peanuts. I see many intriguing things on the menu I want to try the next time: "lily root and banana" (pei-hundred/h'e-union/hsiang tsiao-banana); House Special Black Bone Chicken Soup (seng-saint/lung-dragon/kong-court/t'ing-hall i.e. Imperial court-style/oo-dark, black/chi-chicken/t'ang-soup); Chef Special Soft-Shelled Turtle Soup etc. And these are not specially expensive: the two soups above are listed at $4.95 for a small (serves 2-3) portion, $7.95 for a medium, $12.95 for a large.

****

Before the stop at Dragon King, Wiv and I enjoyed Seth's heh heh "Szechuanese chili gribenes" (Szchuanese chili chicken) and Szechuanese large intestines (kan pian fey chang = #517, Szechuanese pork intestines) at Mandarin Kitchen. The service is very friendly here. We had a long talk with the young chef (Chef Shu) who took the trouble to explain the techniques behind the dishes to us and who shared some of the tricks of the trade by taking us back to his small kitchen (where he works alone). He showed us how he makes his hung yuw (red chili oil) which is the basic condiment for any Szechuanese chef (ta chia zhi chi p'ei de-everyone mixes their own) and every chef's signature. He showed us how he mixes cassia bark (kuei p'i), fennel seeds (hsiao huey hsiang) and pa chiao (star anise) with red pepper powder and oil into his large aluminum pot to come up with his supply. There were also little nutmeg-like berries in the oil-which we couldn't identify at all bec of the red stain but which he called t'sao-grass/kuo-berry. Wiv is still kicking himself for not having brought his camera along.

Chef Shu spoke in terms of terroir in explaining some of his unavoidable substitutions. I was delighted to hear him talk about soil and weather (tian ch'i) when discussing for instance the difference between the dried red peppers of Tianjin (which we had in our dish) and the almost indistinguishable (to the untrained palate) Kuey Chow/Szechuanese dried red pppers (he had run out of his supply and had to use Tianjin peppers). In this batch of chili oil, he had used Korean red pepper powder which he says has excellent red color (even more vibrant than the Szechuanese) but which does not have the same "la wei" (hot-flavor) as the Szechuanese.

Seth had called the chili chicken "Szechuanese gribenes" (after Jewish fried chicken skin) because they are fried in such a way that they DO give a sensation of tasting fried chicken skin. But in fact, not one bit of skin is used, just regular cubes of chicken, dry-fired at high enough a temperature so that the protein structure of the meat "explodes" (becomes crunchy) and takes on a rich chicken-skin flavor. In the Szechuanese manner, mounds of little dried chili peppers (from Tianjin, as above) are then added into the wok to be stir-fried w/ the chicken. The chili peppers take on a fantstic smokey dimension (just like dried red peppers toasted on a comal). The large intestine dish was extremely rich (bec of the fattiness of this variety meat) but was superbly prepared with the same dried red peppers (not as smokey bec the preparation is different), green peppers, onion, garlic, Asian celery. The intestine slices had been deep-fried first, taken out and then stir-fried with the other ingredients.

Mandarin Kitchen
2143 S. Archer Ave.
(312)-328-0228

Mandarin Kitchen, Sky on Cermak (2 doors w of Moon Palace) and Lao Sze Chuan are the three authentic Szechuanese kitchens in Chinatown. In addition, there is of course also the Szechuanese half of the kitchen at Yunnanese Spring World.

Chicago Chinatown rocks!

RST

Misc notes:
*Snake stew (a winter dish) is now available at Happy Chef (between Mountain View and Shui Wah)
*Mountain View is the place that is advertising the addition of a handful of Shanghainese snacks to their regular dim sum menu.
*Tong Ho (see my post on Shungiku/Ssukgat/Chrysanthemum Greens) is offered as part of the hot pot at Dragon King.
*Talking of A-Choy (see same thread), I saw beautiful bunches of it not too long ago at Viet Hoa on Argyle.

RST

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