My first Chowhound event, and it was a marvelous time. A great bunch of people, and they all seemed as food-obsessed as me. We even raised some money for Chowhound while we were pigging out. Here's my take on how it went down.
Appetizer wine: 1971 Maximin Grünhäuser (von Schubert) Abtsberg Auslese (Ruwer). Showing very nicely, with nice caramelization and creamy old-Riesling flavors, a lingering savory dose of remaining sweetness, and an unobtrusive but well-undergirded structure. Good length. I loved it. But, hey, I brought it.
Appetizer tea: dragon ball jasmine, blended with rose petals. I'm not talking about a teabag with pretensions -- this was tea made from a little jar of actual rose petals and rolled-up balls of high quality jasmine tea, that Yimster brought. The combination was new to me, and it sure works well. The bitterness of the jasmine toned down the exuberant tendency of rose petal to cloy and cling, leaving a distinctive, pretty, complex, relaxing cup of tea. Great stuff.
Appetizer food: A nice cold plate of tasty meats. Moist roast chicken with a dark brown tasty skin (good plus). Anise beef shank with that great firm gelled texture (very good plus), great expression of beef flavor with appropriately restrained spicing that really brought out the meat flavor nicely. Jellyfish that was nice but a bit soft for my taste (good). 1/8" slices of cuttlefish, yellow around the edges, with a perfect chewy-but-not-rubbery texture (very good plus). A cold cut that I've seen before, but don't know what to call: circular thin slices with a poultry-looking section, and a white outer "skin" and a gelatinous portion in between. A little flavorless, but fun texture.
Then the courses started arriving fast and furious. I would have preferred a somewhat more relaxed pacing.
Dried scallop soup with yellow chives, chicken and dried mushroom. Disappointing. Too much cornstarchy thickness, and too many flavors blending in a combination that overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the dried scallops and created a melange that was not particularly enjoyable. I'm probably making it sound worse than it was, but that's partly because I love the flavor of dried scallops, and was a bit shocked that it had gone missing. (fair minus)
Next wine: 1998 Schloss Vollrads Kabinett. I'm not sure why there's not a vineyard listed -- is Schloss Vollrads both a producer and an Ortslage (place-named vineyard)? Anyway, it was thoroughly tasty, well-balanced and expressive with just a touch of nice Rheingau thickness.
Cubes of yellow-on-the-outside fried tofu, with gai lan and dried mushrooms. Quite disappointing. My piece of Gailan was loaded with unchewable stringy bits, and there was little flavor to the dish, nor was the tofu of interesting texture as it ought to have been. (fair minus)
Things definitely brightened up foodwise when the conch/scallop dish with yellow chives and bean sprouts arrived. This was a playful-textures dish, with the firm conch, soft scallops playing against the refreshing crunch of the bean sprouts and the soft savory sweet onionyness of the chives. It was also my first taste of conch, a nice rubbery-texture thing to chew that reminded me a bit of geoduck. (very good plus)
Salt and pepper crab. This is a dish that so often seems like the luck of the draw. Perfectly cooked and hot, it can be ambrosial and makes you forget any greasy qualities it may have. Overcooked as this one was, the breading seemed excessive, and the overall effect dull. Not bad, but not great. (good minus) It's R&G Lounge that really excels at this dish. Great Eastern seems to do better with ginger and green onion crab. Later, Yimster showed us the secret stash of fried crab fat that lay under the shell, and passed the shell around.
Lobster with ginger and green onion. Now, this one sparkled. A matter of luck, first bad with the crab and now good with the lobster? In any case, my tail piece was perfectly cooked, perfectly textured (no rubber here) and full of flavor, with the ginger and green onion flavors doing what they're supposed to to, bathing the lobster with subtle enhancement. (excellent)
Stir-fried frog with straw mushrooms and small pea pods. Oh, this was good. No, as Yimster pointed out, the frog was not as firm and sweet as, say, the one I had in frog congee in Hong Kong, but it was still really good, showing off the distinctive subtle taste and interesting texture of the frog. There are a lot of little bones to work around and chew meat off of, but that's part of the fun (excellent minus)
Another wine: Marc Kreydenweiss Pinot Gris 1999 (Alsace). I don't seem to have any notes, but it was a solidly delicious dry Pinot gris with very good distinctive mineral expression.
Steamed sea bass was tender and tasty, not exciting but satisfying, and the soft texture was a nice counterpoint to the other textures on the table. (good)
Roast squab was flat-out superb, with wonderfully textured skin with just the right amount of spice, and flavorful meat that showed off the intensity of squab without crossing over into heavy liverish territory (excellent to excellent plus)
Popping another cork, we delved into a Konrad & Co Sauvignon Blanc 2002 (New Zealand), but its tangy austerity was a tough match with the savory foods.
Then the climax: the special, advance-order rice-stuffed chicken. Oh, baby. Yimster commented that it was not as nice as the version he makes; in particular, it only had sweet rice and sausage and the occasional mushroom in the stuffing, while his is loaded with goodies and the rice prepared in an especially cool way which I will not reveal. I'd probably agree that his version was thoroughly superior if I ever got a chance to taste it (hint, hint), but I was nevertheless completely taken with this dish. Ok, I'm a sucker for Chinese sausage melting its flavor into glutinous rice, but it was just good, the chicken skin decadently crunchy in a sink-your-teeth-into-it sort of way, the rice rich and pleasantly heavy and savory and, when the two are taken together, thoroughly flavored with chicken flavors from the skin. Do I like this better than the version at R&G? The fact is, they're both good enough that I don't much care. Set either in front of me and I'll eat it happily. (outstanding)
Tapering down now, we cracked our fortune cookies and slurped our orange segments, and sipped a second piece of Yimster tea alchemy: Pu-erh tea with chrysanthemum blossoms. Oh, this was good (I'm a big pu-erh fan), and it seemed to keep getting better with each new cup poured. Somehow the flowers seemed to bring out that wonderful aged thing in the Pu-erh, while gentling its more obtrusive earthy qualities to make it accessible for even non-Pu-erh geeks. Perhaps the former effect is why this is a traditional combination -- it made the Pu-erh seemed to share some of the ethereal qualities of the most wonderfully aged ones I've had; yet, Yimster assured us it was what he called "medium grade." I could drink this every morning.
Finally, we settled in for a dessert course and a dessert wine:
Red bean soup with tapioca. A little thin, and too sweet, but still very satisfying (good plus), and a nice match with:
1998 Zind-Humbrecht Heimbourg gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive. Delicious slightly musky gewurz flavors, very full on the palate with reasonably lively acidity, a touch of hot alcohol at the finish, very intense and long and sweet. Very tasty.
On the one hand, this meal was much less consistently good than any other meal I've had at Great Eastern. On the other hand, there were enough good dishes to make me very happy. I'd call it a success, but I'll bet we could do better if we got cleverer with our ordering, sorting out the strengths of the restaurant and playing to them.
To the participants: It was great to meet you all, and I look forward to the next event with anticipation.
Paul, thanks again for making this happen.