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Jan 10, 2002 11:41 PM

Great Eastern Chowdown Report

  • m

Even though I wasn’t the last one to arrive for our holiday fundraiser on Dec. 20, looks like the reporting has bounced back to me. Here’s what I recall of Chowdown #24 of 2001 at Great Eastern in San Francisco Chinatown.

We’d planned for eleven attendees. But through the day the emails and calls kept coming with cancellations and Technicolor descriptions of retching flu symptoms and other disasters of our unusually cold and wet winter. Bad weather or spouses who had already nodded off kept others away from our late night supper. Our numbers dwindled down to five: Nancy Reyes who was recovering from an upper respiratory thing but rallied to the occasion, Ruth Lafler, TingTing and I who were very smug about our foresight in getting flu shots earlier in the season, plus our guest of honor from New York, Tom Meglioranza, fresh from his solo performance in Handel’s Messiah.

Instead of the previously arranged menu, we went with the set menu for six people, priced at $80 that included:

Minced seafood with lettuce wrap
Shredded scallop soup
Sauteed sea conch and scallops with yellow chives
Fresh Dungeness crab with XO sauce
Sauteed soft bean cake and Chinese mushroom with tender greens
Steamed catfish in black bean sauce
Almond jello, orange wedges and fortune cookies

With his first bite of the minced seafood, Tom’s eyes popped wide open as he said, “This is so delicious, what is it?” The “soong” style of appetizer combined juicy morsels of scallops, succulent prawns, lop cheung sausage, grass mushrooms, puffed rice noodles and a dab of hoisin sauce in a carefully trimmed iceberg lettuce cup.

The shredded scallop soup had lots of very expensive dried scallop threads in a dark flavorful broth. It was thickened more than I care for, but that is the fashion these days.

When the sea conch and scallops with yellow chives appeared, TingTing commented that these tender golden leeks were one of her favorite things. The dish had a generous amount of conch in it too. I pointed out that the bean sprouts were carefully plucked of the bean and the thread to make tender, uniform wisps. This was both labor intensive and expensive ingredient-wise, I can’t figure out how they make a profit on this dish.

For Ruth, tasting the fresh Dungeness crab with XO sauce was like eating crab for the first time. “I always thought I didn’t like crab”, said Ruth, “I love this, is this what crab really tastes like?” Cooking it live as the Cantonese do makes all the difference in capturing its sweet essence. The style of XO sauce (chilis and conpoy) here was lighter than other kitchens prepare, yet was perfectly balanced to accompany seafood.

The sauteed soft bean cake and Chinese mushroom with tender greens proved the finesse in the kitchen. Sparkling fresh yu choi hitting just the right doneness, the textural contrast of the slightly chewy exterior of the bean cake versus the creamy insides, and the high quality of the thick meaty mushrooms turned this seemingly simple dish into something very special. “This is good tofu, really good tofu”, said Tom, “I wish we could get Cantonese food like this in New York. I’ll have to bring my girlfriend out here next time” (as four hearts sighed around the table).

Nancy felt the steamed catfish in black bean sauce was the best she’d ever tasted. Much more delicate with none of the muddiness usually found, the black bean sauce added more assertive flavors to the soft buttery flesh. So mild was the taste, we all ate the skin too.

By the time we were ready for dessert, the staff apologized that they were out of the hot sweet soup-style desserts usually offered. Instead we had almond jello, orange wedges and fortune cookies. Nancy asked, “this isn’t just gelatin, isn’t there something else in here?” The extra snap, almost crisp texture, of the almond dessert probably came from some agar-agar in the mix and made it more refreshing.

The vinous part of the evening included:

NV Billecart-Salmon “Cuvée Reservée” Brut Champagne
1994 Lucien Albrecht "Vieilles Vignes" Tokay Pinot Gris (Alsace)
1999 Acorn Russian River Valley Blauer Portugieser (only 132 bottles produced)

We were the restaurant’s last patrons and closed the place at 1:00 AM. The fierce downpour had stopped and we went our separate ways happy to be healthy and well-fed. In addition, we contributed $150 in “Good Will” for Chowhound.

Great Eastern Restaurant
649 Jackson St. (between Grant & Kearny)
San Francisco
Open daily, 11am to 1am
Validated parking at Holiday Inn, 5pm to 10pm


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  1. Brava, Melanie!

    Great report. Even if you weren't last, it's always better to have someone who really knows Chinese food to write about it -- I wouldn't have know what to say, except that it was all delicious.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      You're welcome. Now tell us how you feel about crab again and the trails that chowhounds have blazed for you? (vbg)

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        But you did it for me so well! For those of you keeping track, Ruth's new food at the Dim Sum chowdown was jellyfish -- kinda crunchy, not bad!

        Seriously, I'm perfectly comfortable saying that I did or did not like something, and to some extent whether something was well-prepared. But I simply don't know enough about Chinese food, either ingredients or cooking techniques, to describe it intelligently (at least not to this audience!), and I know next to nothing about regional differences, specialties, etc. (before I read Chowhound I knew nothing at all!).

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          A couple comments from you hit home for me. You expressed your gratitude to our chowhound colleagues for opening your horizons to try new things and to re-examine some foods, like crab, which you had already rejected. If other chowhounds like something, you said you were willing to give it a try and usually it pays off.

          1. re: Melanie Wong
            Vital Information


            I'll chime in that I recently ate lunch with another chowhound in Chicago's chinatown. Kinda out of the blue, my companion said he wanted to try their fried intestine. Now, I got to say that fried intestine was so low on my list of things to try, I ended up actually liking it.

            Now, I have a new years resolution that I will try more offal in 02.


            1. re: Vital Information

              Try the bbq pork livers sliced thin over soup noodles.

              Best of luck with your Chicago pigfest!

      2. re: Ruth Lafler

        Thanks! Melanie! For such an insightful post! I knew it was soooo good & reading it make my mouth watering again! I don't think I've ever had so good Cantonese food before. The ligthness of cooking that brings out the flavor and freshness of the food! I've already sent it out on my recommendation list to my friends... Yumm. And the Tofu...

        1. re: tingting

          Yes, Great Eastern has an incredibly light hand with seafood. Still can't figure out how they put that dinner on the table for only 80 bucks...

      3. c
        Caitlin McGrath

        What a wonderfully evocative post, Melanie! Suddenly my dim-sum lunch feels like it was a long time ago, and I want to taste all this! Thanks for the vicarious pleasure--one of the highlights of!

        1 Reply
        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          Oh my! I forgot one of the evening's highlights - cookies that you and Gatun made. We loved your lacy fruit and nut drops and the candy caps mushroom cookies from Gatun were one of the most unique things we'd ever tasted with maple and earth tones.

          Big thank yous to both of you!!!