One of the most valuable things I've learned from my fellow hounds is how to plan and order a Chinese meal, so I thought I'd share my own recent successful experience.
I'm sure many of you, incuding me on occasions when I haven't been lucky enough to be present, have read accounts of fabulous meals at China Village and wondered wistfully if you could have the same experience.
This weekend I took my family, including my visiting aunt from England, there for dinner. Although the six of us (gweilos all) weren't enough for a full-scale banquet meal, I did want to impress them with both the wonders of China Village and my own chowhoundly prowess.
As a repeat customer who has been to several special dinners there I undoubtedly got some favored treatment and thus I wasn't going to post about the meal, but Melanie suggested that I share my meal-planning strategy with the community, because anyone could do what I did.
Melanie believes, and I concur, that the cold appetizer plates are some of the most interesting and unique dishes at China Village. The chef has an extensive repetoire of them that are not on the menu, and it seems that both the chef and the owner, Mr. Yao, relish the opportunity to show off his skills with some of these off-menu dishes. The trick is, since these are cold dishes and often rather labor intensive, they need to be ordered in advance.
My strategy was to conduct the meal planning by fax, which helped overcome any language difficulties. I had a couple of editions of the menu, but mostly I combed through several threads on chowhound and made a list of dishes that had been particularly praised, including some of the off-menu cold plates and one (zha jiang mian) for which I don't know the English name (or rather, how it is rendered on the menu in English). I selected what sounded like well-balanced menu that covered a range of ingredients, preparations and levels of spiciness, made up a proposed menu, and faxed it to Mr. Yao, including my phone number so he could confirm and discuss any problems. Because of my own dilly-dallying and the fact that Mr. Yao was not in Thursday, I actually didn't contact him with my special order until the Friday morning before the Saturday dinner.
He called promptly to confirm and was able to honor all my requests. The dinner went off smoothly, and everyone raved about how fabulous it was. We may have gotten favored customer treatment, but I think anyone who takes the time to plan a special meal there and who shows an interest in exploring the chef's abilities will be treated warmly. Mr. and Mrs. Yao are very proud of their chef (we noticed they have a picture of him participating in the Bocuse d'Or competition over the cash register) and are gratified when diners appreciate what he and their restaurant have to offer.
One caveat is that the off-menu dishes may be quite a bit more expensive than those on the menu (the four plates I ordered were listed together on the bill at $40, while the price range for cold plates on the menu is $4-7/dish), so if you want to avoid surprises you should ascertain the pricing in advance. However, the regular menu dishes at China Village are roughly the same as any other neighborhood Chinese restaurant, so I figured I'd take a chance and splurge. In the end, even with the relatively extravagent appetizers the bill, with tax and tip and including some beer and corkage (I think -- the bar bill wasn't itemized) on a bottle of Riesling, came to just a little over $25/person -- truly a bargain for the quality and quantity of food.
The final menu:
Four cold plates: sliced side pork with spicy garlic sauce (from menu); sweet and sour calamari, mustard greens with hot mustard sauce, dragon whiskers beef (special request)
Spicy Tofu with fish fillet (aka "red bowl of death")
Village special lamb with cumin
Hot and spicy pork shoulder
Spicy sauce potato strips
Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce
Zha jiang mian (hand-cut noodles with bean sauce and ground pork -- I'm not sure if this is on the menu, could be the soy bean sauce noodles)
Sesame flat bread
1335 Solano Ave.