When it comes to Chinese food, I have to admit that I've been a bit bored with the mostly Cantonese offerings here after these years. I've had a few good experiences with alternatives at Szechuan and Shanghainese places, but I'm always on the lookout other stuff from other regions. (Still haven't been able to find a Teochew or Hokkien place.)
So I was quite psyched when I saw this place called GuiLin Garden on 6th and Clement that claims to offer food from GuiLin. GuiLin is a place in the Guangxi Province in Southern China known for its beautiful scenery (san1 shui3 in Mandarin, literally mountains and rivers).
I spent some time peering at their menu when I was waiting for the Muni 44 after dim sum at Ocean last week. I figured that they were serious about their stuff when I noticed that the menu had sections devoted to local specialities from GuiLin, as well as little bites from the locality (labelled Chef Special on the menu) and Guilin Special noodles. In other words, 3 sections of things that are hard to find in other Chinese places.
I got my eating buddies together on short notice and we ate there tonight, ordering mostly their regional specialities or their house specials. These guys are probably from mainland China because they speak Mandarin, not Cantonese (yes - finally a waiter that i can communicate with).
We started with two little eats (literal translation of xiao3 chi1). First, a skewer of boiled kelp that was somewhat bland but an interesting texture - a kind of blunt crunchiness with a very faint seaweed flavor. This was followed by a skewer of well marinated cumin beef which turned out to be quite satisfying.
Next was my favorite of the night, a plate of fried taro balls. They resemble the Cantonese taro balls you see at dim sum, but they're a bit smaller and aren't filled with anything. The exterior is a lacy delicate shell of crispiness and there's sweet, fragrant and meltingly soft pure taro on the inside. Obviously the kitchen knows what they're doing.
This was followed by a frog stir fry which had great flavor, but the chunks of frog had lots of bony fragments and the meat (a little chewy) was generally hard to get to. A shame, since I loved the heat generated by tons of halved garlic cloves and red chillli (might be too hot for some), along with onions and a lift from celery. Good flavor combinations but the frog itself let us down.
I loved their fried rice noodle dish with seafood. The ultra-thin angel hair-like rice noodles are more common, but they used a fat spaghetti-like rice noodle that was slippery and with just the right amount of springiness. The seafood in there was fairly fresh, and the prawns were crunchy. The chef took the pains to score their squid with very fine delicate strokes, so that it curls up into a beautiful and almost flowery pattern when cooked. And it was cooked just right - not tough at all. (I'm definitely going back for their noodle soups which seems to be a speciality.)
Lastly we had a table cooked catfish in a hot pot. The waiter brings a pot of broth, sets it on a mini gas stove on the table, turned it on and put in a whole fish head, tail and all, that's been cut transversely into half inch thick steaks, along with ginger slices and cut inch and short lengths of green onion. The fish was fresh with clean flavors, and we dipped that in a great smoky dark chilli sauce made from ground chilli. Afterwards, some lettuce, silky tofu and shiitake mushrooms are thrown in to cook in the broth. The broth was mild and light - some might complain that it might need more salt, but I thought it had a nice fish flavor and was very cleansing.
Tab for 3 came to $17 a person (including tip, no alcohol.) Considering that I was quite stuffed ( we didn't finish everything) and we had a whole fish and all, it was a great value. This isn't some fancy Ton Kiangish place with all the trimmings, but it's unfussy and offers that kind of simple goodness that comes from a kitchen that cares about what its doing. This is the kind of country cooking I'd expect in a Chinese village and I'm glad that this unique kitchen is doing pretty good job at it.
Lastly, please, please, please - if you spot a Chinese place claiming to cook regional stuff, let me know. Many thanks in advance!