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report on set dinner at Utopia Cafe, SF Chinatown

Ruth Lafler | Dec 17, 200207:25 PM

Yimster gathered a small group of us to try the set family dinner (in Chinese only) at the much-discussed Utopia Cafe.

The set menu (as translated by Yimster), is priced at $18.80 and included:

Soup of the day
Beef with vegetables
Salt and Pepper Pork Chops
Steamed Chicken with Lily Buds
Green bean sweet soup

The soup of the day was cactus flower! The broth moderately rich and full or unfamiliar vegetative matter, some of which (the finely fiberous stuff?) must have been cactus flower. A good start for a cold rainy night, but not terribly interesting, especially given the exotic main ingredient.

Salt and Pepper Pork Chops were tender and flavored with 5 spice as well and S&P. Very good.

Yimster told us the Chinese name of the greens with the beef, but I've forgotten (some kind of choi, not bok). This dish was tasty and well prepared, but I would have liked more greens, since these were the only veggies on the table.

Steamed chicken was cut into big bone-in pieces and served with both the lily buds and large wood ear fungus. I think this suffered in comparison with the other chicken dish we ordered.

The soup was interesting: small beans cooked in a "broth" sweetened with rock sugar. It made a light conclusion after our indulgence.

Althought the set menu was good and a good value, I think the other dishes we ordered were stronger.

Salt and Pepper White Bait (anchovies?) were fried whole in the same coating as the pork chop. The rich fish flavor went well with the salty/sweet coating.

Steamed Tofu and Fish Pate sounded unappealing but turned out to be my favorite dish: Yimster explained that the tofu is pureed, blended with with the fish forcemeat and then steamed into curds about the firmness of medium scrambled eggs. It doesn't taste particularly of either fish or tofu (although I think I detected a sweet shrimp note). I found myself reaching back to this plate repeatedly to scoop more onto my plate.

Ginger Pork Trotters with Sweetened Vinegar -- oops, I was wrong, this was my favorite. The Cantonese version of red cooked pork trotters include large chunks of ginger. The ginger flavor cuts some of the cloying richness of the pork fat and sugar. This was a small portion and we could easily have polished off a second order, even though we had more than enough food.

Yellow Chicken with Scallion, Ginger, oil and salt salsa. This was another success: the chicken was tender and silken and the sauce, likened to a South American chimmichurri sauce, was unique and delicious.

We washed this down with Jasmine bud tea Yimster brought, house tea (Pu Erh), and a bottle of 2001 Monchhof Estate Riesling I brought picked up on the trip to K&L. As usual the fruity-tart Riesling went well with the Chinese menu.

The total cost for the set menu plus the four additional entrees was about 51.00. But with Yimster's Gusto discount it was 41.00 (with tax). We left a hefty tip (remember when using a discount card to tip on the pre-discount total) so the cost was
11.00 per person.

Utopia is not "fine dining" but it does serve delicious, authentic food at very reasonable prices. The only problem from my point of view is that the specialties are all in Chinese, and the staff doesn't seem to speak much English (Han's post linked below says one woman does, but no one I tried to talk to Sunday did), so you really need to perservere to get the "good stuff." Or take a Chinese-speaking friend to dinner (at these prices, why not?).


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