Those that know me, know that I have a fair amount of pet theories and strongly held opinions. And god knows I love when one of my theories gets some real world support. Last night at Spring World, I got some major empirical evidence to support my theory on eating in Chinese restaurants. Essentially, my theory holds, the effort the kitchen decides to extend on your dishes matters greatly in what ends up on your plate. In other words, not every kung pao chicken tastes the same, as we found out last night. The primarily corollary of my theory is that the kitchen makes a decision on how well to cook your dishes based on the totality of your order. If your order appears "Chinese," the kitchen will do its best, and the more your order veers away from that standard, the sloppier will become the cooking. Now, the second corollary to my theory, is if you have someone at your table in constant communication with the owner, in Chinese, discussing in great details, the nuances of his cuisine, your chances of a great dinner increase that much more.
So, while 100 percent of the quality of our meal at Spring World goes to the kitchen staff, credit for reaching that 100 percent surely go out to our, no longer so elusive friend, RST. Credit also to the enhancement of this meal goes to the Ultimo, GWiv. His generous supply of fine German Riesling and Powers Irish Whisky primed our pumps, but also had some part to play to in winning over the Spring World crew as I believe we very much earned points in their eyes by downing several shots of whisky from our tea cups. And of course, to get the meal rolling, we had nicer "china" cups to drink a special tea from Yunnan province. Perhaps RST can provide the name. Light and herbal, not at all grassy as some green teas can be, a nice chaser as well.
And the food:
Appetizer plate four ways - conch in a sneaky hot sauce, also very chewy; the famous chicken in black vinegar dressing, maybe the finest dish in the house; mushrooms wrapped around bean curd sheets, more rolls of bean curd than some other local versions; tendon, sliced razor thin, forgotten dressing, but delicious.
Cold Yunnan noodles, like spaghetti, in a multi-flavor sauce, similar to the chicken, but also very heavy on the cilantro. Could have stopped right here.
Beef and special mushrooms in a dark rich sauce - This was a Trio-esque type dish where the richness of the beef merged into the richness of these special mushrooms. Blindfolded, you would not know which was which. (A 4 color brochure was provided for us later to learn more about the imported mushrooms.)
Yunnan ham with leeks - Wow! While I would have loved to have had the ham, procured we are told via a hell of a lot of red-tape, plain with buns, I was plenty happy with this preparation. Yunnan ham really tastes almost exactly like good country ham. The same dense texture, the same intense ham flavor, and the same linger saltiness that tons of soaking cannot kill. Could have stopped here.
Pan fried dumplings - A fine, if un-dishtinguished, dish. Larger than typical dumplings
Chengdu dumplings (a/k/a boiled dumplings) - A superior version, somehow the called for chili oil was not as oily as it could have been. What was the added grated substance, ginger?
Kung pao chicken - A nod to a first time Chinatowner in our group, yet another superior version. Just the exact amount sauce clinging to the meat and bright fresh peanuts made this a fine dish to eat.
Pigs feet "Hong Tashen" - Hong Tashen, as RST explained to me, is a city in Yunnan and the name of Spring World in Chinese. We were not sure if the dish was meant to be in the style of the city Hong Tashen or in the style of the restaurant named Hong Tashen. Regardless, I am now convinced that I like pigs feet as much as I like spicy desserts, meaning a hell of a lot more than I thought I did. This was a spicy dish, loaded with dried chili peppers, yet unlike some dishes at like, Lao Sze Chuan, the peppers meant something. OK, fatty, chewy and bony too, but all in a good way. Give in to pigs feet!
Tofu and Chinese okra - No one was quite sure what is really Chinese okra. We think it is the long green vegetable also called oh perhaps and used in Indian cooking. This was a mild satisfying dish that played extremely well against the more rich and spicy other courses.
Spicy baby chicken with ginger - I have had this dish at Spring World before, and it has always been good, but this was gooder, as Sophia might say.
Tilapia fish is horrible looking sauce, insert gross analogy at will, that tasted perfect.
Scallion cakes - Is this getting redundant, the best version I have had in Chicago. Wisps of grease, flaky, crisp and puffy in spots, I could have eaten a dozen.
Fresh fruit and Yunnan style moon cakes - This is not on the menu, but what the house offered us for dessert. Yunnan moon cakes are totally different from the Cantonese versions, no nuts or bean paste. Instead, an extremely flaky dough, from lard I am sure, filled with tiny bits of Yunnan ham.