It may have been the first time anywhere that yak cheese was featured at a Chinese banquet, but all 15 happy Chowhounds took it in graceful stride. Actually, we took all 10 courses in stride, leaving just enough token leftovers to satify Chinese sensibilities that we were well, and amply fed.
Melanie, as always, did an impeccable job of organizing, ordering, and sharing her vinous gifts. One tough job she faced was persuading the restaurant to serve us the menu we eventually enjoyed, as they were initially unconvinced that non-Chinese would appreciate some of their more unusual offerings. They may have since realized that Chowhounds are blessed with culturally adaptable tastebuds.
So eager were all last night's pariticipants that, arriving compacently at 7:03 pm for the 7pm dinner, I was shocked to find out that 13 other people had already arrived! (New Chowhounds, take note! "Fashionably late" does not apply to Chowhound dinners. Good food does not wait!)
We actually had two feasts last night, one being the stories of Jonathan White, as fascinating a raconteur as he is a fanatical cheesemaker. Jonathan told us of his trailblazing experiences, e.g., exporting cheese FROM the United States, TO Europe (something so novel that the USDA and Customs had to create a new set of guidelines and, of course, forms), and creating a cheese industry for a nomadic people who have never eaten cheese before. (My fearless forecast, based on tasting Jonathan White's excellent cheeses: the next generation of Tibetans will consume almost as much cheese per capita as the French.) It was inspiring to listen to this former computer geek's story, and to see his dedication to his craft. Not many people are willing to endure the tribulations of fund-raising and international red tape in order to spend weeks on end eating unpleasantly ripe yak meat, just to develop a new cheese.
The other feast, our Chinese New Year-in-anticipation Banquet went something like this: (For those of you interested in the manifold symbolism behind the foods chosen, please read Melanie Wong's earlier post from several days ago. It was an enlightening read that added a new dimension to our enjoyment of dinner.)
First course--Bamboo Pith, Tofu, and Seafood Soup. Bits of dried scallop, bamboo shoot, bamboo pith (the inner wall of the stalk of a species of bamboo, with a spongy-slightly crunchy texture and a very delicate vegetable sweetness), asparagus, leek, and mushroom--all suspended in a chiken egg-drop broth. Served scalding hot, it was a good, light appetite-teaser.
Second--Minced squab in lettuce cups. A savory stir-fry of finely minced pigeon, chicken (I think), water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, Chinese sausage (lap cheong), and fried rice noodles, served on a leaf of iceberg lettuce dabbed with hoisin sauce. A nice contrast of textures and flavors between the cold, crisp, sweet lettuce and the chewy, earthy flavors of the squab filling.
Third course--Salt and Pepper Live Dungeness Crab. This has to be one of the best versions of this dish anywhere, and my favorite dish of the feast. Pieces of deep-fried crab evenly coated with a very thin, crisp batter, seasoned with a touch of garlic and chili. One bite into a succulent morsel left you in no doubt that the crab was very fresh and masterfully prepared. A pleasant surprise: the rich, slightly bitter tomalley under the crab carapace was eagerly devoured by my fellow diners: no sqeamish hounds last night!
Fourth course--Sauteed Fresh Scallops and Prawns with Golden Chives and Silver Bean Sprouts. Huge medallions of scallop sauteed with yellow chives (grown with little or no sunlight, I've been told) and beansprouts from which the fine root hairs and bean heads have been painstakingly removed, served in a light chicken-broth based sauce.
At this point, the dishes started coming fast and thick, and we had 5 courses on the lazy susan before I could even out my chopsticks. This was a break with the proper banquet tradition in which one dish is served at a time, allowing it to be savored fully before the next course is brought to table. This was the only serious flaw I found in the dinner.
Fifth or maybe Sixth course--Dried Scallops, Fat Choy, and Lettuce Casserole. Enormous dried scallops (very expensive stuff), the color of mahogany, with the texture of monkfish, and a mild flavor similar to lobster, were braised with fresh iceberg lettuce and greenish-black angelhair seaweed, the last chosen because its name is similar to "New Year" in Chinese, fat choy. With the slippery, fragile, thread-like texture of the fat choy, coated in the tasty braising liquid, this was another favorite dish.
Sixth course-Chicken Stuffed with Sweet Rice. This should be called Jim Leff's Famous Stuffed Chicken (although it was actually Melanie Wong's find). And it was a dish worthy of its fame. A whole chicken, deboned down to the wingtips, and seamlessly filled with sticky short grain (sweet) rice flavored with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, mushrooms, dried scallops, coated with cornstarch, and fried to a golden crisp. This has to be as good as any version in Hong Kong, with the skin forming a rich, crusty shell for the flavorful sticky rice. Only the chicken head and a fragment of bone remained on the platter.
Seventh--Filet of Beef in XO Sauce with Sugar Peas. Large morsels of marinated beef coated in an unusual XO sauce (spicy-sweet, due perhaps to a hoisin base) stir-fried with nicely contrasting, crisp sugar peas. It must have been popular because it disappeared within 10 minutes of landing on the table, before I could glean more than a large sliver.
Eighth course--Steamed Whole Live Striped Bass with Ginger and Scallions. Two whole bass, steamed the traditional way, in a simple bath of soysauce and rice wine, with ginger and green onions in sizzling hot oil poured over after cooking. A good dish, though a shade overcooked, making the texture of the fish too tight.
Ninth--Pea Shoots with Garlic. These should have come before the fish, but we had earlier been (mistakenly) served bok choy. No self-respecting Chowhound takes bok choy in place of pea shoots, so we waited for the pea shoots. And it was worth the wait. Perfectly cooked, crisp and emerald green, tasting as if they had been picked just the day before, just lightly bathed in oil and garlic.
Pre-dessert course--Jonathan White's cheeses. A very mild grass-fed yak's cheese, with a texture similar to a Tomme de Savoie, with the grass notes floating out at the end and, second, a stronger cow's cheese, a little crumbly, slightly salty, but with an earthier flavor than the yak.
Another pre-dessert treat: Jennifer Fish Wilson diligently hunted down (through 16 shops, I believe) a traditional tray of (mysterious) sweets. There must have been at least 8 kinds, of which we managed to identify candied kumquats, soursop, sweetened beans, and coconut.
Tenth course, dessert--Black Sesame Tong Tun Dumplings. These were glutinous rice-paste dumplings filled with a semi-liquid ambrosia of ground sweetened black sesame seeds and peanuts, served in a warm, sweet light syrup.
Melanie's estimate of a food cost of $40 per head was very accurate. We paid $43, tax and tip included, and it was worth every penny!
I am afraid I am unable to do justice to the wines here, having focused my limited attention span on the food and the conversation. But I did note that the '93 "J", '96 Chambolle-Mussigny, and the '88 Sudiraut Sauternes were excellent, all well-balanced, standing up to the food very well.
Having had to eat and run, I am afraid I missed more of the scintillating food talk that went on after dinner, and as this post is already far too long, I shall beg the indulgence of my fellow Hounds in asking the inimitable Melanie to give a fuller description of the wines, and my 14 other valiant companions to fill in my many ommissions.