Even though I wasnt the last one to arrive for our holiday fundraiser on Dec. 20, looks like the reporting has bounced back to me. Heres what I recall of Chowdown #24 of 2001 at Great Eastern in San Francisco Chinatown.
Wed planned for eleven attendees. But through the day the emails and calls kept coming with cancellations and Technicolor descriptions of retching flu symptoms and other disasters of our unusually cold and wet winter. Bad weather or spouses who had already nodded off kept others away from our late night supper. Our numbers dwindled down to five: Nancy Reyes who was recovering from an upper respiratory thing but rallied to the occasion, Ruth Lafler, TingTing and I who were very smug about our foresight in getting flu shots earlier in the season, plus our guest of honor from New York, Tom Meglioranza, fresh from his solo performance in Handels Messiah.
Instead of the previously arranged menu, we went with the set menu for six people, priced at $80 that included:
Minced seafood with lettuce wrap
Shredded scallop soup
Sauteed sea conch and scallops with yellow chives
Fresh Dungeness crab with XO sauce
Sauteed soft bean cake and Chinese mushroom with tender greens
Steamed catfish in black bean sauce
Almond jello, orange wedges and fortune cookies
With his first bite of the minced seafood, Toms eyes popped wide open as he said, This is so delicious, what is it? The soong style of appetizer combined juicy morsels of scallops, succulent prawns, lop cheung sausage, grass mushrooms, puffed rice noodles and a dab of hoisin sauce in a carefully trimmed iceberg lettuce cup.
The shredded scallop soup had lots of very expensive dried scallop threads in a dark flavorful broth. It was thickened more than I care for, but that is the fashion these days.
When the sea conch and scallops with yellow chives appeared, TingTing commented that these tender golden leeks were one of her favorite things. The dish had a generous amount of conch in it too. I pointed out that the bean sprouts were carefully plucked of the bean and the thread to make tender, uniform wisps. This was both labor intensive and expensive ingredient-wise, I cant figure out how they make a profit on this dish.
For Ruth, tasting the fresh Dungeness crab with XO sauce was like eating crab for the first time. I always thought I didnt like crab, said Ruth, I love this, is this what crab really tastes like? Cooking it live as the Cantonese do makes all the difference in capturing its sweet essence. The style of XO sauce (chilis and conpoy) here was lighter than other kitchens prepare, yet was perfectly balanced to accompany seafood.
The sauteed soft bean cake and Chinese mushroom with tender greens proved the finesse in the kitchen. Sparkling fresh yu choi hitting just the right doneness, the textural contrast of the slightly chewy exterior of the bean cake versus the creamy insides, and the high quality of the thick meaty mushrooms turned this seemingly simple dish into something very special. This is good tofu, really good tofu, said Tom, I wish we could get Cantonese food like this in New York. Ill have to bring my girlfriend out here next time (as four hearts sighed around the table).
Nancy felt the steamed catfish in black bean sauce was the best shed ever tasted. Much more delicate with none of the muddiness usually found, the black bean sauce added more assertive flavors to the soft buttery flesh. So mild was the taste, we all ate the skin too.
By the time we were ready for dessert, the staff apologized that they were out of the hot sweet soup-style desserts usually offered. Instead we had almond jello, orange wedges and fortune cookies. Nancy asked, this isnt just gelatin, isnt there something else in here? The extra snap, almost crisp texture, of the almond dessert probably came from some agar-agar in the mix and made it more refreshing.
The vinous part of the evening included:
NV Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Reservée Brut Champagne
1994 Lucien Albrecht "Vieilles Vignes" Tokay Pinot Gris (Alsace)
1999 Acorn Russian River Valley Blauer Portugieser (only 132 bottles produced)
We were the restaurants last patrons and closed the place at 1:00 AM. The fierce downpour had stopped and we went our separate ways happy to be healthy and well-fed. In addition, we contributed $150 in Good Will for Chowhound.
Great Eastern Restaurant
649 Jackson St. (between Grant & Kearny)
Open daily, 11am to 1am
Validated parking at Holiday Inn, 5pm to 10pm