In September I had the chance to attend a banquet hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle for a meeting of American food journalists. As we approach Chinese New Year, I thought it worth posting about for those considering having Yank Sing (Rincon Center) cater their event. The menu was arranged by Olivia Wu and attended by about 100 guests.
Imperial walnut salad - I was surprised to learn that this is one of YS's signature dishes. Hadn't heard of it before. It's a red cabbage slaw with slivers of jicama, rau ram, honeyed walnuts, and lemon zest with a citrus dressing. A refreshing start.
Six Happiness Cold Plates - As shown on my plate below, starting at the 12:00 position is the soy-marinated pigs ear that gave us something cartilaginous to crunch on. At 2:00, my favorite, the drunken squab in a light superior soy-based marinade with preserved plum meat. The smoked vegetarian goose is at 4:00, the best version I've ever had. The jellyfish salad at 7:00 was decent, a bit too soft. The jellied duck tongue at 10:00 was another soy-marinated thing. And, in the center is the duck gizzard braised in master sauce (more soy sauce-y seasoning) with salty preserved vegetable. Each of these was a good to outstanding version and provided an adventure in diverse textures. Yet having four items whose principle flavor was soy and the veggie goose with some as well resulted in a blurring of flavors and feeling of too much of the same.
Double-boiled Turtle Soup - The intensely flavored yet light and delicate stock was infused with Chinese herbs and had a surprising amount of turtle meat and soft cartilage in it. As always, I find this sort of tonic refreshing and cleansing. This meal included wine and the photo I have of this course shows the cognac with 7-Up that Olivia feels is a great match with multiple courses. I remain unconvinced.
Suckling Pig - The whole decked-out pig was paraded around the room for a photo op. Then we were each served an individual plate with a precisely trimmed slice of meat, a rectangle of the crispy skin, and a special thin wafer-like bun sized to these dimensions. Hoisin sauce and granulated sugar were offered as accompaniments. The sugar didn't work for me as it clashed with the inherent sweetness of the young pig's natural flavor. Despite Olivia's urging that the skin was the best part, I saw an awful lot of it left on plates around the room.
Geoduck Sashimi - This was the highlight of the meal for me. I've never seen so much geoduck on a plate before. Sprinkled with tobiko, this was served with fresh wasabi and a light soy dipping sauce that melded beautifully with the sweet crunchy/chewy/tender slices of bivalve.
Jade Scallops in Bird's Nest - The bird's nest turned out to be deep-fried vermicelli that was too hard and stale to eat. But it made an attractive presentation. The amount of spinach-infused scallops was rather skimpy, as I only got one piece that was less than a whole scallop. However, it was quite tasty stir-fried with Yank Sing's XO sauce and pieces of cantaloupe, sweet red pepper, and fresh lily bulbs.
Treasure-stuffed Lotus Leaf Chicken - I had high hopes for this version of beggar's chicken when I saw it on the menu. But they were dashed as our server unfolded the lotus leaf to reveal and pull apart an overcooked chicken that fell into dried-out and lifeless shreds. Seasoned with slivers of pork, preserved beets, onions and black mushrooms, the chicken was overseasoned and swimming in a very salty five-spice soy sauce marinade that out-shouted every other flavor.
Steamed Fresh Rock Cod - With the tight firmness of a recently swimming fish, this was cooked perfectly, just barely pulling off the bone. However, despite its absolute freshness and terrific texture, it was a type of rock cod that doesn't offer that much flavorwise. I suspect it was chosen for its large size for serving a table of 10 and ready availability. To boost the flavor, the chefs used much more soy sauce in the seasoning blend than would be typical for a clear-steamed fish. Coming right after the over-soy sauced chicken and added to the cumulative soy sauce in this menu made this dish too monotonous.
Snowpea Shoots Sauteed with Garlic - With so many salty dishes in the line-up and no steamed rice as a buffer, the arrival of the plate of greens was a blessed event. Luckily the large pea shoots were perfectly cooked with just the right whisper of garlic.
Shanghai Dumplings - By now we were three hours into this meal and feeling much too full, but I wouldn't leave without tasting the xiao long bao made with Kurobuta pork. The wait was worth it, and this was another highlight of the meal. Here's my previous post on the xlb.
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Dessert Platter - The sugar-dusted eggy puffs were fabulous. I grew up calling these ja dan, but I asked our server and learned that they're now called tong sah yuen. The red dates filled with chewy mochi were a nice touch of fruity sweetness to end the meal.
With the exception of the chicken, I felt all the dishes were well-executed. There was too much repetition of soy sauce-flavoring, giving this meal a much heavier and earthier feel than the typical Hong Kong-style banquet. The sequencing of flavors and the choice of dishes was out of harmony, but I had no problems with the cooking itself.
However, my opinion seemed to be in the minority in this crowd. I heard a comment from another table that there only 2 ounces of this meal that could be considered edible. Another group was making plans to go out for pizza afterwards. Judging from the reactions of our country's food writers, it seems that authentic and traditional Chinese cooking isn't ready for prime time in America.