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A Lot of Bang for the Buck with a Banquet at Five Happinesss

soupçon | Nov 5, 201107:58 PM

Since someone posted about a not-very-satisfying $30 pp casual food meal at Charles Phan's new venture I thought i would post some positive news on the value front -- a similarly priced Chinese banquet at Five Happiness Restaurant

I recently celebrated (if that's the right term) my 70th Birthday and decided to note it by hosting my extended family at a Chinese banquet. Since most of them are Shanghainese, I sought a venue with Northern touches to the menu, and somewhat warily settled on Five Happiness after some lobbying by my wife. Five Happiness, which flies under the radar, is a place we have been going to on and off for nearly 20 years for good food and great prices but is not a place one would think of for a formal banquet meal. We were pleasantly surprised.

Five Happiness offers two banquets at $228 and $258 per table of ten. I chose the cheaper one because it includes Peking Duck (the $258 banquet has Eight Treasure Stuffed Duck instead). A photo set of the courses in the order served can be seen at http://is.gd/K9aUKV . The photo captions are direct quotes from the English Menu.

"Deluxe Five Happiness Platter" included traditional Shanghainese cold dishes: white-cooked chicken, 5 spice beef, mock duck, salty duck and jellyfish salad (perched on top). All were good renditions, though it was not clear whether the chicken was meant to be drunken chicken or Xiao Shaoxing style. There was no discernible rive wine taste nor was a green dipping sauce present.

"Sharks Fin Soup With Spinach Broth." I was tempted to ask for a substitute, but decided to make this my last shark's fin soup ever, rationalizing that the restaurant probably had stock to use up before the ban kicks in. it was quite good, tasting of nothing but spinach in a nicely seasoned broth. The shark fin had been pretty much pulverized and had no flavor of its own, of course

"Peking Duck With Pan Cake" I was happy to see Five Happiness serve the duck with crepes, which I prefer, rather than buns, which is often the case. (You don't need a truck to serve Asian tacos!) At 5H They preface the serving by bringing your duck out whole on a platter to display it, then return to the kitchen to carve it. Both the skin (nicely crispy) and the leanest part of the duck meat are served with the traditional setup. As for the carcass, it's boxed up and presented to you at the end of the meal to take home and make soup with.

"Snow Fried Shrimp Ball" These were deep fried shrimp balls laden with shrimp, very tasty and so filling they threatened to take the edge off our appetites early in the meal. They were served with multicolored shrimp chips.

"Shrimp Roe Braised With Sea Cucumber" None of us, not even the Shanghainese, are big fans of sea cucumber, and this version was particularly unappetizing because the shrimp roe saucing was far too subtle to mask the muddy flavor of the sea cucumber. On the other hand, i could imaging sea cucumber partisans loving this preparation. This should be put down as the sole bomb of the meal, but blame us, not the restaurant.

"Crab Braised With Shanghai Rice Cakes" In contrast to its predecessor, this may have been the star of the whole show. I have no idea what waters (or whose tanks) the two Dungeness crabs came from, but we all remarked on how fresh they appeared, and of course the Shanghainese were ecstatic about the presence of the nian gao. Shanghainese just are.

"Shanghai Steamed Pork Buns" It was nice to have xiao long bao served at my birthday, but we knew going in that Five happiness' xiao long bao were inept versions, unlike some of the other Shanghai style small eats they serve at brunch. My one guest who was unfamiliar with XLB thought they were perfectly fine stuffed dumplings, but little does she know....

"Steamed Sea Bass With Ginger Sauce" This also was a big hit overall, though I thought it was a bit dry. (I also had the guilao bad luck of having the only bones in the whole filet find me.) Although it was listed as 'steamed" I would wager it was baked. The crumbled topping was particularly interesting, crunchy and nutty-flavored, and is still something of a mystery. It definitely wasn't a "sauce" and didn't taste gingery. My wife queried the waitress in Mandarin, who said it was "some kind of bean" she couldn't name.

"Shanghai VG Tofu Roll With Spinach" This was mushroom-stuffed bean curd sheets (known in some parts as "yuba") and definitely a Shanghai classic (but with Jiangsu roots, my wife will tell you). I'm not sure what the VG stands for, unless it's menuese for "vegetarian".

"Shanghai Crispy Noodles With Assorted Meat" This dish was so misnamed that i wondered if it wasn't a substitution. The noodles were crispy on the bottom, true, but there's nothing Shanghainese about that. There was no "meat" in it, but a plenitude of seafood. The dish was essentially a Hong Kong style seafood chow mein; if there was anything Shanghainese about it, it was that the noodles were thicker than the wispy Hong Kong noodles usually seen in this dish. It was good, though, and will give me long life.

"Eight Treasure Sweet Rice Cake" This was the prettiest presentation of the night, but I can't really comment on it because I don't typically eat sweets. (I did actually have a bite, first dumping the syrup out of the spoon, and I didn't die). My stepdaughter was VERY happy to take the leftover Ba Bao Fan home.

The bottom line was that this meal, with a few beers, an automatically added 15% service charge and sales tax, came to $306 for a table of 10, or a shade over $30 per head. Value in a Chinese restaurant meal CAN be had.

Five Happiness
4142 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

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