* Note: Fellow Chowhounds, do not bring a notebook, pen or any scraps of paper to any Chowhound event unless you possess a burning desire to be nominated as the Event Post-er.
For the record, Im a white girl from suburbia. I like Chinese food, but have always struggled to determine what, besides an upset stomach, is the distinguishing factor between good and bad Chinese food. My Midwestern WWII vet Dad has always said that good Chinese food has more meat and vegetables than sauce which seemed a good place to begin, but vague. But then again, one time Mom was out of town and Dad took us to this scary looking Chinese restaurant that was probably a front for something else and the food had more meat and vegetables than sauce but we were still up all night
Now I live in the Napa Valley, which while it has plenty of fabulous food, lacks what I would call any type of diversity or shining examples of ethnic food. Except maybe the taco trucks, but thats another thread.
So, Limsterfest at Great China in Berkeley seemed like an opportunity to broaden my knowledge about Chinese cuisine, specifically that in Northern China. And it also provided an opportunity to shed the facelessness of the board and match names to real humans. Foolishly, I brought my wine & food journal to help me sort out my thoughts for personal reflection later. Its presence got me automatically nominated to post.
Nine of us squeezed around a table on the lower level, our "adult beverage" contributions crowding the table. Sitting opposite our hostess, Ting Ting, made it sometimes hard for me to hear in this noisy restaurant, so forgive me if I dont have all the names of the dishes right. The highlight of this seating arrangement was that Shepherd B. Goode and I were seated near the wall and the ancient electrical outlets that provided power for the lights over the tables. Every time we moved our chairs, the lights would flicker and sparks would fly from the outlets.
To begin, we enjoyed some Sonoma Hard Pear Cider, which displayed aromas of pear, banana, nutmeg and some floral notes, which continued on the palate. Overall, a clean finish, not overpoweringly sweet, with bright, moderate acids.
Our first course came and it was either Winter Melon Soup or Bitter Melon Soup I couldnt quite hear which. Funny how winter and bitter sound the same across a crowded restaurant. This was a haunting combination of melon, chicken, shrimp, cilantro and other things I couldnt quite identify all in a clear broth. This was haunting in the way that you wake up and vaguely remember having a lovely dream but cant quite remember it or what was so lovely about it, but you keep remembering tiny threads of it throughout the day until the whole memory ultimately fades away.
About this point we opened a Beaulieu 1999 Carneros Chardonnay, which had a classic nose of butter, apple and nearly tropical floral characters. Flavors of pear and apple were immediate on the palate with a creamy, lingering finish. We also opened the Borsao 2000 Campo de Borja, a Spanish estate bottled blend of 75% Grenache and 25% Tempranillo. This wine showed beautiful cherry, red berry, maple syrup, oak and vanilla notes on the nose, and raspberry jam, and cherry in the mouth with a medium weight, balanced acids and moderate tannins on the palate.
The next course was a beautiful dish, which I unfortunately did not get the name of (see a reoccurring theme here?) that had perfectly julienned vegetables and black tree ears mushrooms piled on a platter. Our server quickly combined the contents of the two bowls in the center of the platter, hot mustard and soy sauce, and then tossed them over the vegetables. This dish was rich yet clean tasting, full of texture, with the tang of mustard. I think I could eat this once a week, but then again I love mustard.
Next came the dish perhaps most anticipated, the duck. Nearly shredded slices of rosy duck with caramel colored crispy squares of what I believe someone said were mung bean based. This dish was accompanied by the Chinese equivalent of crepes, and a spicy sweet sauce, plum based I think. Combining the duck, pieces of the crispy squares, and the sauce in the little crepes, and well, the result was chewy, spicy, smoky, and sweet with hints of anise. The type of food that one could, without thinking, just keep eating and eating until you looked up and realized that youd eaten the whole thing yourself. This was about the time I started asking myself why I had chosen to wear my new slim fit jeans.
About this point the Titus 2000 Napa Valley Zinfandel was opened. As a disclaimer, I brought this wine because the Titus family happens to be my employer. Still young, this wine has lots of what Melanie accurately refers to as grapey flavors. The nose shows hints of spice, ripe raspberries, vanilla and smoke. The mouth displays frontal fruit characters of raspberry and macerated Bing cherries backed by elements of saddle leather, vanilla, and smoked meats. I was even nice enough to let Shep take the partial bottle home. I was interested to see how it paired with the duck, and it was more than satisfactory, it sung to me.
The next dish I gave my own name to: Babys Butt, because of the pale, soft buns that accompanied the dish of rice, (with crab or shrimp or?), scallions and a raw egg on top that was quickly incorporated. The texture was like a wetter risotto, and it was stuffed inside the buns and eaten kind of like a sandwich. Mild, soft and nearly sweet tasting with the oh-so-soft buns, this is in a textural sense, the stuff comfort food is made of.
About this point, sensory over-stimulation began to occur, as the dishes came thick and fast. This is when my brain started to struggle with how to balance conversation, sensory analysis of new foods, wines, the flickering lights, noise and note taking.
Somewhere around this time a bottle of 1991 Navarro Gewurztraminer was opened (yes it was from Melanies cellar). The nose was redolent of jasmine, spicy clove, petrol and mandarin orange. The mouth was full of round, clean flavors of grapefruit, orange blossom, honeysuckle and an almost peppery spiciness.
The Razor Clams followed, big chunks of flesh drizzled with soy sauce and served in large flat shells. This was chewy and salty but fresh and clean tasting. Then came what my notes simply refer to as Greens, which I vaguely remember as just a simple dish of steamed greens. Next to arrive was a dish of thin, long green beans, and tofu. The beans were cooked crisp tender and the whole thing was wonderfully smoky.
The Walnut Prawns came next, prawns battered lightly and fried greaselessly with candied walnut halves and a honeyed sweet sauce. A dish of long and wide flat cellophane noodles followed, with spicy and peppery flavors.
Then came a dish of Pork Belly on Preserved Vegetables, which was as rich, dense and flavorful as cassoulet. The pork belly was as chewy and tender as beef daube.
And there my notes stop. I have this nagging feeling that Ive left dishes out, however, I do remember finishing with chilled orange slices. This caused great discussion at the table of how orange slices always taste better at Chinese restaurants. We analyzed slicing and chilling methods, but ultimately I think even a mediocre orange would taste stunning after such a parade of rich, varied, flavorful dishes. And though my notes fail me, Melanie did open a bottle of dessert wine, which I think was an ice-wine from Canada?
Whatever I dont remember, I do remember that we had a good time. And while the evening did not clear up all my questions about Chinese food, it did help me begin to form a slightly clearer understanding of Chinese cuisine.