Last night, we went with some Korean friends to Crystal Palace (150 Sylan Ave, Englewood Cliffs, NJ), a Korean Chinese restaurant. It his been around for a while and is the only place of its sort that our friends go to. (They also always order the same dishes when they go there!) I am a complete novice to this sub-cuisine, which was discussed a bit on this board a year or so ago a link to one thread is below. Was this meal an experience of life-transforming deliciousness? Absolutely not! Was is fun and tasty and worth a return trip? Absolutely! It also inspired me to try seek out other places that serve this cuisine. First a report on our meal, and then some general musings. We had:
*On the table, fried chinese noodles (takeout style) with duck sauce and mustard, a black bean paste that reminded me of marmite, good cabbage kimchi, and sliced raw onion and yellow pickled radish, the kind you often get in Japanese restaurants with eel. You dip the onion in the bean paste, and you pour a sweetish white rice vinegar over the radish pickle, which gives it a whole new flavor dimension.
*Fried yellow fish in garlic sauce an delicious, very meaty, well-fried fish in a somewhat gooey sauce with lots of garlic, scallions and chilies.
*Sweet and sour beef pieces of beef that were dipped in batter and fried so that the shell was smooth ,hard, and extremely crisp, almost a crackling armor. It was swimming in a honey colored sweet sour annd garlicky sauce with tree ear mushrooms and pineapple. The sauce was gooey here to, but in a syrupy rather than cornstarchy sense.
*Beef with leeks shredded beef, leeks (oriental, not western), and black mushrooms. This dish had no sauce at all, just the stir-fried ingredients. I actually think that it improve when anointed with a bit of soy sauce. We ate it with unusual steamed buns, which were made from finely shredded dough and looked like noodle nests. It reminded me of a Manchu-style dish of shredded lamb and leeks that you eat with steamed bread or pancakes that I once cooked out of a Northern Chinese cookbook.
*Kochu champon -- listed on the menu I think as noodles in soup with seafood. I did not like this dish at first but it grew on me. It contained a lot a shrimp, scallops, squid, cabbage, bamboo and mushrooms, along with tasty wheat noodles (similar to those in the eponymous soup at Menchancko) which were overcooked, at least to my taste. But the broth! It was pink, rich to the point of being almost creamy, and spicy in ways that I associate with Cajun rather than Korean (or Chinese!) cuisine. The effect was very much that of a spicy seafood bisque, with more complexity, and less flour.
*Noodles with bean pasteI think called Jia Ja Mien, or something like that. This was the same wheat noodles, again a bit overcooked, with lots of sauce based on the black marmite-ish bean paste, and topped with shredded scallions. I gather from the earlier postings that this is real soul food, but it did nothing for me. It did strike me as a close and lean descendant of the classic northern Chinese dish of noodles with lots of pork, and pork fat, in a brown bean paste, which is also topped with scallions or garlic.
Crystal Palace has at least 3 menus. An American Chinese menu (generic NY metropolitan area Chinese food), a banquet menu with set meals of $180 and up, and a Korean Chinese menu. We ordered from the last, and 4 of us over-ate (to the point that I am awake and typing this at 4 in the morning) for around $75 incl. tax and tip but no drinks. I would be interested in trying dishes from the American Chinese menu to see how they get Koreanified. The banquet menu requires both a crowd and an investment, and the dish titles are completely generic (i.e. "Fish"), but it would also be worth exploring, as I gather from earlier postings that it represents and important tradition. Unfortunately, I couldnt see much of what other people were eating. We sat near the front, and the rest rooms were also near the front, so it was a bit awkward to do a full reconnaissance of other peoples tables as I usually would.
Where did this cuisine come from? See the discussion on the thread below, but I would like to suggest something further. American Chinese food, at least in its 1950s combination plate variety, is descended from Cantonese food cooked by immigrants who came to work on the railroads but later spread through the country, and adapted dishes to local ingredients and tastes. Korean Chinese food seems to me to be descended from the cuisine of Northern China, cooked by a Northern Chinese immigrant population (either of relatively long standing or post-Mao refugees) , modified to local ingredients and tastes, and perhaps to the tastes and expectations of American GIs as well.
I am by no means an expert on Beijing cuisine, but many of the dishes we ate had clear antecedents in the north: the beef with leeks, the noodles in bean paste whose Korean name even sounds like the Chinese dish. Also, the sweet and sour beef for me evoked a Manchu dish that I have read about but never tasted, called "It Tastes Like Honey." Both Northern China and Canton had sweet and sour dishes, and this Korean rendition, honey colored rather than neon red, might be Northern in origin. The steamed bread certainly fits in. Also, from what I could see, many Korean parties started with massive cold platters, most of which featured cold jellied anise-y beef (usually shin) a classic northern dish. The garlic and chili certainly fit in with both Korean and Northern Chinese tastes. What I think throws us is that though the dishes and flavors are different, the aesthetic is so similar to what we associate with 1950s style Americanized Cantonese food. Could this be a response to the tastes of Americans?
A link to the most recent thread on Korean Chinese is below. There is some earlier discussion worth searching for by Wonki and Michael Yu.