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Report: Terrific Cantonese food at Lucky Dragon Cafe, Pleasant Hill

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Report: Terrific Cantonese food at Lucky Dragon Cafe, Pleasant Hill

Bryan Loofbourrow | Jul 27, 2003 05:47 PM

A group of us ate very well last night, at a restaurant whose only mention on Chowhound, that I can find, was a Yimster post in May.

Liza likes to say that, the minute I decide I like a restaurant, I start worrying that they won't succeed if I don't eat there at every opportunity. This time, that was certainly true, and I wasn't the only worrier. It was Saturday night, and it felt like we were almost the only people there. This is a really good place, worthy of having Chowhounds filling it to the rafters.

The emphasis of our meal was definitely on seafood. I don't think I am capable of hearing the words "Cantonese" and "seafood" in the same sentence, without feeling a little rumble of hunger in my tummy. There's no better cuisine for playing up the freshness of seafood.

Here's how it went:

Jellyfish (cold appetizer)

One of the ways I know I'm in expert hands in the kitchen, is when a dish initially turns me off a bit, then, gradually, I start really liking it. Initially, this jellyfish seemed cut too thick, a touch too heavy and rubbery, not quite tangy enough…but with time, and the emerging subtle burn of chili flakes, I got to like it more and more. Works for me. VERY GOOD MINUS

West Lake Beef Soup

A perfect example of the transparency of Cantonese food, and of the beauty of a dish of simple, complementary flavors. Slightly thick with starch, and egg white ribbons and pieces, the gentle broth cradles nubbly bits of tasty beef, and sharply-defined scallion and coriander pieces. A pleasure. EXCELLENT

Live Shrimp Two Ways

Shrimp are so common, yet I found something irresistibly luxurious about confronting this plate: unadorned shrimp tails in shell, and a pile of deep-fried shrimp heads nestled on a bed of chopped fresh chili peppers. The tails are what they're supposed to be, fresh and tasty, with a nice mild thin sauce on the side. EXCELLENT MINUS The heads are remarkable. Not greasy at all, exuberantly fresh, deliciously rich, perfectly complemented by the chili. EXCELLENT PLUS

Salt and Pepper Crab

An exceptional version of this dish, which consists of crab pieces in shell, deep-fried, with some breading. This version had only a token amount of breading, was not greasy at all, and was suffused with a peppery, gentle seasoning that went right on through to the center of the meat and complemented it perfectly. Perfectly cooked. EXCELLENT

Boneless Chicken Stuffed With Sweet Rice

Very different from other versions I've had. The rice in the center had cooked to the point where it had formed almost a set-pudding texture, like the best dim sum turnip cakes. The skin, instead of being easily separable, highly crisp chunks, was crisp, but more bonded to the rice. So what you had was cross-sections of a sort of paste-stuffed chicken. The chicken meat was part of the filling. I think some at the table were less than enthralled with the stylistic variation. I had to do some adjusting, myself. But once I accepted it for what it was, I was very pleased with it. The skin was nicely-textured and full of intense chicken flavor. The stuffing was noticeably more flavorful than the other versions I've had, even without the mushroom sauce. EXCELLENT

Live Fish, cooked 2 ways

I had thought there were going to be 3 ways, but either I missed a "way," or it was supposed to be 2 all along, or there was a change in plan.

Way #1: Big chunks of fish, stir-fried with soft, sweet yellow chives, crisp snow peas, crunchy (and fortunately not assertive in flavor) celery, and straw mushrooms. I'm told that this fish was a sturgeon, and a very flavorful fish it is.

Let me pause here for a rant about what I call the "random stir-fry." I have been to a lot of Chinese restaurants, good and bad, and one thing that sets the bad ones apart is the tendency to throw ingredients into a stir-fry with seemingly little regard for the flavor combinations that result. Inappropriate celery, red or green bell pepper for color with no thought to how their assertive flavors will complement or overwhelm the rest of the dish. Hard chunks of carrot, or stringy chunks of inferior canned bamboo shoot. Throw it in and let the sauce take care of the flavor issue.

The point I want to make here is that this winner of a fish stir-fry was at the opposite extreme. Everything seemed to belong; everything was pulled together by attention to seasoning and texture into a cohesive whole that made sense. Everything tasted great, separately and together. EXCELLENT

Way #2: This was the head and tail of the fish, stewed in a hotpot, along with rectangles of tofu that had a firm caramelized skin, a silky-soft interior, and a clinging, slightly sweet sauce on the outside.

Look up "savory" in the dictionary, and you'll see this dish. There were brown beans -- I would call them black beans, and probably should, but they had none of the assertive "black bean" quality I'm used to, merely contributing an earthy element to the dish. There were dried (and reconstituted, of course) shitakes -- but not just plain; these had been, apparently, stewed in soy. They tasted just like a "master sauce mushrooms" dish I make, where shitakes are stewed and steeped in soy, rice wine, anise, golden rock sugar, tangerine peel, and cassia. Did the chef really go through all that just for something that's just one of the things in the pot? Apparently so. EXCELLENT

Sweet and Sour Pork.

One almost feels that one has to apologize for this dish; it has become such a prototypic exemplar of bad Chinese food. Well, it didn't get its bad reputation from versions like this. Yes, the sauce was bright red. Yes, there were chunks of pineapple. But the pork was beautifully caramelized and extremely flavorful; the sweetness, perhaps just a touch eggy, nicely complemented by sufficient tanginess. Let's face it, caramelized pork and sugar is a wonderful combination, and this is a perfect showcase of the truth of that. EXCELLENT

E-Fu Noodles

Chewy, soft noodles. Just a touch too much sharp soy flavor, but that seemed to be more true in some places on the plate than in others. Mushroomy and gentle (the yellow chives do that, I think), satisfying and tasty. VERY GOOD

Stir-fried Green Vegetable

Okay, we have a problem. This simple, stir-fried green vegetable, whose English name no one seemed to know, if it has one, is the most delicious green I've ever tasted, with the exception of pea shoots. I thought that there had to be stock in the sauce, it was so meaty-seeming, but everyone said no, that's just a great Cantonese simple preparation of a great vegetable. EXCELLENT PLUS, but I must find out what this thing is. They were kind enough to bring out a raw example. It has a central stem about 3/8"" in diameter, and a few long leaves, resembling a much thinner version of Romaine lettuce leaves, extending mostly from the base. Apparantly, it is the heart of a lettuce-like plant.

Anyone know what it was? And where to find some? I'll certainly have my eyes peeled next time I'm at 99 Ranch.

Deep-Fried Bananas

Bananas, crunchy breading, sweet honeyed syrupy coating. A touch of welcome bitterness. Very nice dessert. Probably this would be rated even higher if I hadn't been spoiled by the remarkable version at Chef Ding's, where the syrup actually turns hard as it cools. VERY GOOD PLUS

This dinner was so remarkably, consistently good that I can hardly believe it. Whether that's because of the overall excellence of the place, or because Yimster managed to order so skillfully that we hit all of their high points, I don't know. But clearly this is a restaurant worthy of serious consideration. I plan to seriously consider it myself, as soon as I can find my way back to Pleasant Hill.

Lucky Dragon Cafe
41 Woodsworth Ln
Pleasant Hill
(925) 671-9836

-- Bryan

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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