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Chinese New Year's Eve Banquet: Lucky Eight Cold Appetizers

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  • Melanie Wong Jan 22, 2004 08:00 PM
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Last night the Fish, Fong, Fujiyama, Wilson, and Wong clans gathered with a few friends to greet 4701, Year of the Monkey, with a sumptuous banquet. Our first order of business was to pop the corks and raise our glasses in a toast to the new year. Then Perry "chowchild" had a quick Cantonese and Mandarin lesson and proved his proficiency in both before his aunties forked over the "lucky money" in a red envelope.

At 7:45pm, the first course was served - a dazzling carousel of eight cold plates accompanied by four condiments. The condiments or relishes could be combined with the various dishes to create different flavor notes and tones.

Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

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  1. For those who like to know the ending before you decide to read along, here's the state of my brother William's table at the end of service. Streamers from the poppers, a bevy of wine glasses and empty bottles, remains of desserts, the tray of sweet meats, and the last of the tangerine centerpiece.

    Linked below is the slide show of William's pictures from table and perspective to get a different look at this special meal.

    Link: http://homepage.mac.com/wlw/PhotoAlbu...

    Image: http://homepage.mac.com/wlw/.Pictures...

    1 Reply
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      great report of a very special meal - thanks for sharing.

    2. Some astonishing knife work demonstrated here in creating the chef's impressionist view of a monkey's head.

      Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

      1. A warm and sweet syrupy broth with a pair of red dates for good luck and some crystal clear chewy nubbins of shark cartilage imported from China. Presented in glass bowls with dragon-handled gilded liners, it looked like molten gold.

        Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

        2 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Amazingly, even though almost every morsel of the repast was a revelation, the only thing I am still craving tonight is this date soup! The straightforwardness of the syrup accented by the bits of gelatinous cartilage just clicked into a haunting food memory now filed away in some corner of my taste subconscious.

          1. re: Miele Maiale

            I agree that the visual simplicity of this dessert was somewhat deceiving. A clear syrup with near-invisible pieces of cartilage and the duo of floating red dates. I'm not versed in what type of refined and less so sugars a Chinese cook would use to create that syrup, but there was a gentle undertone in the flavor that reminded me of the brown type of sugar used in champurrado.

        2. The final savory dish was rice in a clay pot topped with a red and white yin-yang pattern of white chicken pieces and red lop cheung sausages. This was served individually in small bowls and topped with a soy-based seasoning sauce.

          I felt it was the weakest of the dishes. Yet Maria "coolbean" mentioned that she was surprised how much she enjoyed the white rice at the end of this long meal. We agreed there was something about the simplicity and blankness of this dish that was appealing after so many intricate and detailed courses. Tom used his portion to enjoy more of the fish's sweet-sour sauce.

          Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

          1 Reply
          1. re: Melanie Wong
            m
            Maria (coolbean)

            Yeah, it was definitely the weakest dish, but wow, what a contrast after all the intense flavors of the other dishes! It was just very cleansing. I could have even used more rice after dessert. ;)

          2. This was a whole fish in name only as the individual rolls were constructed of fish filets rolled around a stalk of crunchy gai lan that was green on one end and a peeled white on the other. The sweet and sour sauce was perfectly balanced and complex with many subtle flavors. To represent harmony and wholeness, the deep-fried head and tail were presented with the fish to reconstruct the body. Bryan L. and Michael Rodriguez quickly claimed these prized crunchy parts.

            Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

            1. Firm, thick slices of earthy Hericium (dried and reconstituted monkeyhead mushrooms aka pompom aka lion's mane) were bathed in a richly chicken-y sauce. Jen Maiser eyed this plate in that thoughtful way she has and said, "this isn't a random pattern, what do you think it is?" Besides honoring the year of the monkey, these mushrooms are considered auspicious because they grow on evergreens. The pattern on the plate was a conifer tree.

              What amazed me about this dish were the dark brown strips of chewy beef (brisket?) used to make the tree trunks. They were ropey and had a coarse vertical grain to emulate tree bark. They were also very tasty.

              Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

              1. In Northern China, water dumplings (shui jiao) are the traditional New Year's Eve food, symbolizing gold ingots for prosperity. The shui jiao were excellent with tender and thinnish wrappers, and filled with pork and that elusive fresh green taste that Ruth Lafler just calls, "you know, choi flavor". Peter Yee thought they would have been better with the usual dipping sauce, but I enjoyed them very much as is.

                The New Year's sticky rice cakes (nian gau) represent advancement and aspiration for the coming year. Prepared in the Shanghai style, these blew away any of the versions prepared by our local Shanghai restaurants. Firm (bordering on tough, but in a good way) and decidedly chewy, the sauteed slices of rice cake were glossy with pan juices and flavored with tender and succulent pork shreds, bean sprouts, julienne of red and green peppers, and the tastiest pickled vegetables.

                Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                1. This is the much anticipated whole abalones, one per person. Starting with fresh abalone, they're simmered with magical stocks until they "reach the stone, and then cooked more until they release it". The preparation for this dish started on Sunday. In the center of the plate are succulent whole prawns coated with filamentous conpoy and shreds of colorful vegetable in a seafood mousse. They almost looked shaggy. The dish is finished with Shanghai cabbages (qing cai) and a rich and deep abalone sauce. So concentrated and complex, clearly, many life forms were sacrificed to achieve this flavor. The abalones acquired a carmelly taste and dense texture, finishing with the sweetness of honey and musk.

                  This was probably the most controversial dish, bringing forth what Michael Rodriguez dubbed, "the cultural divide". Pieces of uneaten abalone made their way around and between the tables to those who would enjoy them more. Tom Garrett said it was the one dish he didn't "get", and offered to share his next bounty of Sonoma Coast abalone with me.

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

                  Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    I have to admit I was leary of this dish: the abalone, with its rubbery appearance and weird, irregular shape, did not look very appealing, and I'm generally not fond of mollusks and bivalves (after one nibble, Bryan Loofburrow had ended up with my oyster).

                    But I have a "try one bite" rule when dining with my fellow hounds, so I finally screwed up my nerve and bit into it. It wasn't rubbery at all: rather, it had a unique firm-but-yielding texture. The long, slow braising had caused the sauce to permeate all the way to the center, and the flavor was indescribable, with overtones of bitter chocolate. So I took another bite, and another, and pretty soon I'd eaten -- and enjoyed -- the whole thing.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      And I was leery of what your reaction would be, knowing your distaste for most mollusks and dried seafood! But the fish maw and this dish seemed to pass the ruth-o-meter with flying colors. You may end up regretting this - as I said to those who didn't love the abalone, you'll save a fortune in your lifetime if you don't acquire a taste for the abalone habit.

                      I did wonder why we weren't given forks and knives to cut into the whole abalones, which is common practice at the Hong Kong style restaurants. After taking a bite out of my piece, I didn't mind, as there was something so satisfying about biting down on this whole dealie.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        You'll notice that what both the fish maw and the abalone had in common was the long braising. The fish maw had really no fishy quality at all: it was more of a texture element, and not an unpleasant one. In fact, if I hadn't known what it was I might have thought it was bamboo pith or something similar.

                        I doubt I'll acquire an abalone habit. I probably wouldn't go out of my way to order this dish (especially for what it cost!), but it was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Again, because of the long braising it didn't taste fishy. The closest analogy texturally to anything I've even eaten is beef heart, although perhaps this impression was enhanced by the appearance.

                        I'm afraid oysters (and mussels and clams) continue to be a lost cause: I keep trying them and keep disliking them. On the other hand, the little piece of gai lan rolled in shrimp forcemeat and deep-fried in panko crumbs was one of my favorite bites of the evening, although perhaps that enjoyment was enhanced by its familiarity. It was one of the few dishes that wasn't "challenging" in some way, and thus was somewhat of a relief!

                  2. Underneath the dabs of orange salmon roe and the green flying fish roe and not visible in this picture, each slice of this seafood mousse roll encased a perfect fresh oyster. The mousse of the large sized slices was bright white and had a tender soft texture suggesting a base of white fish and scallops. Coated with panko, these were deep-fried and absolutely greaseless. The miracle was that the oyster core was sweet and briny, perfectly cooked to stay juicy and preserve its fresh taste. I nibbled on my slice out of hand and each bite presented a different array of contrasting textures and flavors.

                    The garnish pieces shown in the center of the platter were made of a pinkish, more flavorful and firmer forcemeat, suggesting prawn-based. A crunchy bit of gai lan (Chinese broccoli) formed the core, adding a refreshing slightly bitter note.

                    Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Help? Where is Fortune 8. Sounds great.

                    2. Pipa refers to the Chinese mandolin, the form which these prawns emulate. I was expecting this shape, but was even more mightily impressed by the multi-colored "strings"! A butterflied prawn provided a base for a core of mango mounded with shrimp paste. When this dish came out, I said, "I think I need a glug of JJ, please." And, Bryan L. graciously passed me the 2001 J. J. Prum M-S-R Kabinett he'd brought to the party. The peachy, near tropical flavors and floral aromas of this German Riesling wine were a beautiful match for this dish.

                      Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                      1. Fish belly and crab meat, such an unassuming name for such an elegant preparation and presentation. The restaurant pulled out its fanciest flatware and gilded place settings for this banquet. Yet, I must confess when I first saw this thickened soup, it looked like Campbell's cream of chicken to me. This dish was three days in the making. Apparently the soup starts out as clear, deepens to brown, and then becomes this rich shade of yellow. The fish maw was the finest I've ever experienced, thick and spongey, and deeply saturated with the stewing liquids. A bit of sweet crab meat and a topping of dainty raw pea sprouts added a fresh fillip to the long, braised flavors.

                        There was an initial hush, as each guest enjoyed the first bites in silent reverence. Then Jennifer "chowfish" leaned over and sang "I'm in heaven, I'm in heaven..." in my ear.

                        Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                          This was my absolute favorite of the evening. It was surprisingly rich and flavorful. The color was beautiful. I'm going to find out if it is a dish that can be special ordered. Don't think I can wait a year to have it again. I've never had fish belly before so can't compare but it was delicious--perfect texture and flavor. I'd rank this as a tie w/ my previous favorite soup--my own matza ball soup. Maybe the Yaos would like to swap creations?

                          1. re: chowfish

                            Except for the texture of the fish belly, this dish reminded me more of the rich complexity of fine French cooking, where sauces and stocks are reduced to concentrate flavors. Like the abalone, the preparation of this dish had started on Sunday.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              I was amazed that every dish had such a complex flavor. None of the flavors were overpowering, and none were so subtle you had to search for it. And in a few dishes, each part of the dish was different. Also, each dish was so different from the others. This was a very new and enlightening experience for my taste buds.

                          2. re: Melanie Wong
                            m
                            Maria (coolbean)

                            This was also my favorite! The soup was so rich and tasty but not overpowering - I was able to enjoy the subtlety of the flavor. It was very easy to enjoy - I hardly paid any attention to the crab, to be honest. The texture of the fish belly went so beautifully with it, and the presentation was a treat.

                            Thanks again to all the planners and staff for such a wonderful celebration. :)

                            1. re: Melanie Wong
                              m
                              Maria (coolbean)

                              This was also my favorite! The soup was so rich and tasty but not overpowering - I was able to enjoy the subtlety of the flavor. It was very easy to enjoy - I hardly paid any attention to the crab, to be honest. The texture of the fish belly went so beautifully with it, and the presentation was a treat.

                              Thanks again to all the planners and staff for such a wonderful celebration. :)

                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                The Tanjia Fish Belly and Crab Meat was one of my favorite dishes. The broth was so rich and creamy and just the most delicious thing I had ever had. The crab meat was very tender and the fish maw was perfect in texture. Everyone else seemed to love it as well. I saw several people eyeing their bowls after they had finished with a nervous look on their face. I had a feeling that they wanted to lick the last bits off of the dish but didn't think it would be appropriate. After an inner debate, everyone reached for their spoons and began to scrape anything they could find off the bowl and into their mouth. It was just that good.

                              2. c
                                Caitlin McGrath

                                Melanie, I'm sure you intended to tell us where this magnificent feast took place!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                  I think this must be the famous Chinese banquet torture

                                2. In the center of the table the small plates in the gilded chargers, clockwise starting from the upper right, were hot and spicy bamboo shoots, preserved cucumbers with dried pork, tiger skin jalapeno chilis, and Sichuan pickled vegetables. So carefully crafted and delicious in their own right, Maria "coolbean" felt they deserved a better name than "condiments".

                                  Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                  1. Just faintly glazed with a bit of sweetness, the flavor of the eel had a clearer expression than the sweeter and stickier Japanese versions. Tom Garrett remarked that he felt like he was tasting unagi for the first time.

                                    Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                    1. Incredible knife work in creating these feathery fringes, and equally impressive was the high quality of the tender and totally non-fibrous young bamboo shoots. Beautiful presentation in the shape of a fan.

                                      Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                      1. Marinated with a special anise-like spice called something like ding xiang (?), these slices of buttery tender duck were aromatic and hauntingly complex in flavor.

                                        Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                          Melanie was too slow snapping this picture, and I'd already nabbed the top slice. I was going to apologize for ruining the presentation, but that morsel of duck was so delicious I'd be lying if I said I had any regrets!

                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                            Dingxiang usually means cloves.

                                          2. This photo really can't do justice to what I thought was the most spectacular of the already magnificent appetizers. "Light shadow" refers to the transparent quality of these beef slices. Yes, you can see through them. Wish I'd taken the shot that Ruth suggested of holding one up to the light.

                                            Apparently a special cut of beef is partially cooked to the point where it can be sliced very thin and still hold together. The slices are fried to a crisp, to become wispy, crystaline crisps, then tossed with a hot and spicy, sweetened sauce. They crackle, then melt into nothingness in the mouth.

                                            Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              This is my vote for the best appetizer. I'm sad that I probably won't ever eat this dish again. The pieces of beef were unbelievably thin - the thinnest piece of food I'ver ever had.

                                              1. re: felice

                                                Apparently it's a famous Sichuan dish, so please don't be sad because you may run across it again. My brother compared the thinness of the beef "chips" to deep-fried basil leaves some chefs use as garnish.

                                            2. These tightly compacted pinwheels of chicken with a mosaic of walnuts at the center didn't have that much flavor on their own. But this made them a great foil for the spicy condiments, and I especially liked this one with the Sichuan pickled vegetables.

                                              Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                              1. These strips of tender prawn were pure white or perhaps opalescent is a better term, since they were translucent. At the same time, they were fully cooked. A special blanching liquid and split-second timing is used to achieve this bleached color and soft texture.

                                                Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                  Again, besides being delicious, the presentation was outstanding. Although I'm not sure what it's supposed to be: the prawns look like a monkey head, but the carrots look more like the tail end of a koi.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    In the picture, it looks just like a fancy goldfish seen from above. As you note, the carrots form its fan-tail.

                                                    It's perhaps fitting that this was my first Chowhound-related event, since I think my first post on the board was to recommend this restaurant. It was a great pleasure to meet so many Chowhounds, and it's hard to imagine a nicer group of people. Seated between Derek and Felice, I certainly didn't lack for cheerful conversation. Thanks to everyone for making it such a nice evening, and particularly to Melanie and Jennifer for setting it up (and including me) and Ruth for arranging the host gift. I look forward to seeing you all in the future, and to meeting more of you as well.

                                                    1. re: ericf

                                                      I'd thought it was a monkey head (well, brains) too. But, duh! Now I see the big lion-mane head and bulging eyes of a prized goldfish. And, it's even the same colors as those mottled white and orange fish.

                                                      We're so grateful to you, Eric, for being the first to bring the restaurant to our attention, we had to share whatever special hospitality was extended to us. I'm so glad that you were able to be part of our families' celebration.

                                                2. Faintly chewy yet tender and sweet slices of conch were bathed in "ma la" red marinade with yellow leeks.

                                                  Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                                  1. This was the first dish placed on the table, and the detailed knifework of creating the thinner than matchstick strips of carrot encased in the white radish, plus the presentation took my breath away. I knew we were going to hit many heights this night.

                                                    In the initial menu, it had been described to me as "cucumber rolls". But Peter Yee convinced me that it was made with white radish (similar to daikon) rather than cucumbers. The seasoning and combination were based on the complimentary dish of carrots and radish cut into batons often presented at the start of the meal. A creative way to take a homestyle dish and present it with Imperial style.

                                                    Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

                                                    1. Happy New Year all to all of you. I must say that I am simultaneously full of envy and vicarious pleasure. Monkey head mushrooms are one of my favourite fungi; haven't had it often enough.

                                                      Cheers and best wishes for a properous year of the monkey!

                                                      1. Happy New Year! You sure started it with a bang.

                                                        1. What a wonderful dinner. Wished I had attended. But to all a Happy New Year and the year be full have good food and good hounds eating it.

                                                          1. Thank you for the great photos and rich, detailed descriptions. It sounds like you had a very memorable New Year's eve, and makes me really wish I had been there.

                                                            In all the haste & carefullness to post about every dish, you forgot to tell us where this exquisite meal was held. And forgive my poor memory & search skills, but I can't find the post where this Chinese NYE dinner was first announced (or was it through word-of-mouth/email only?).

                                                            3 Replies
                                                            1. re: Alice R

                                                              It was at China Village on Solano in Albany, Alice, about which there have been many favorable posts in the recent past...

                                                              1. re: Alice R

                                                                The eve of Chinese New Year is a sacred time to be spent with family members sharing a special meal. This is when we set our aspirations for the coming year and surround ourselves with loved ones to show our intentions to remain together in the future. The banquet was a private function limited to relatives and a few close family friends. It was not announced on the board, so rest assured, there’s nothing wrong with your memory or search skills.

                                                                Chowfish and I debated whether we should report on this special meal. Our families have been loyal and strong patrons of the restaurant. When I contacted them, the owner was so honored to be selected for this special night, he pulled out all the stops to offer a cuisine that is much more refined than the usual offerings and extended some very special hospitality. Our concern was that our experience might be out of reach of the normal customer. All of the dishes, except the boiled dumplings, are off-menu. In the end, we felt the cuisine was so unique…this is perhaps the only kitchen in North America or even the Western Hemisphere capable of creating these dishes…we decided to share it here and hope that the chowfriends in attendance will add their impressions to the milieu. Further, this is an example of the rewards of chowhounding. By seeking out deliciousness in unlikely places, actively engaging the staff and proprietors, and demonstrating discernment and passion as a dedicated eater, Serendipity happens.

                                                                I did not forget to disclose the location of our dinner. Because these special dishes are so different from the normal offerings, I did not state it upfront and asked those who came to the dinner to hold back on the location. I didn’t want anyone's prior impressions of the place to bias their reading of the food. Those who were patient to continue all the way to the end and open the link to William’s slide show could read the stated venue for the banquet. (vbg)

                                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                  Makes sense; I appreciate the explanation. This meal sounds so extraordinary I'm glad we got a glimpse of it. Happy New Year, and thanks for the appetizing, informative thread.

                                                              2. Thanks for the pictures and descriptions of this wonderful meal. Having thought that I've tasted a lot of different Chinese food, seeing the dishes here makes me realize how shallow of surface I've only scratched in the realm of real Chinese cuisine.

                                                                It's opened my eyes to all the depths and varieties of Chinese food. The chef(s) definitely are masters at their work. Hopefully some of these dishes will become more "common" so us mere peasants can also enjoy them in the future.

                                                                -t

                                                                2 Replies
                                                                1. re: tanspace

                                                                  Hey Mr. Tan, this is your family's cuisine! Yet, like you, I didn't even know it existed until Mr. Yao at China Village started talking about it. Funny thing is, one of my aunties called me on Wednesday to invite me to dinner, in case I was alone. When I told her I would be attending a banquet that featured a couple Tanjia dishes, she got very excited and animated. She's eaten at Tanjia restaurant in the Beijing Hotel and can't believe that the food might be available here. Now why didn't I think of asking the aunties this before? They know everything. (g)

                                                                  The other interesting development is that China Village was totally jazzed by the reception this menu received from our group. Especially from the non-Chinese guests. The staff met that night and decided to develop a special banquet menu featuring all Tanjia dishes, so you will be able to order these dishes readily in the future (with advance notice, of course). It will be top dollar, but the feeling was that the cuisine should be presented in whole, and not diluted with "regular" dishes such as at our dinner.

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

                                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                    That is really great news. Not only was it delicious, but our NY meal was a wonderful learning experience. Aside from the numbing spicy conch, I had never had any of those preparations before. I am sure that others will enjoy the unique opportunity to taste this cuisine just as much.

                                                                2. Thanks Melanie (and others) for sharing what must have been a truly memorable meal and celebration.

                                                                  I have forwarded the message thread to my son-in-law Peter in Hong Kong who will enjoy it as well. He organized an amazing wedding banquet based upon the winning dishes at various HK food competitions, when he and my daughter Tory were married there some years back.

                                                                  It is also exciting to know that my two grandchildren will grow up in Hong Kong sharing this wonderful tradition with their large extended family members.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: Alan Caplan

                                                                    That's a lovely sentiment, Alan, thank you for sharing it.

                                                                  2. Thanks Melanie and Jennifer for organizing this amazing meal. And thanks for posting the photos. Even though I ate every course, some were dug into by the time they made their way around the lazy Susan and I didn't get to see the full presentation until now. My favorites were the light shadow beef (amazing beef chips), the tanjia fish belly and crab meat (I think Derek and I simultaneously described the fish belly as a little like tripe, although less chewy and crunchy) and the abalone (the first time I've ever had one whole, not sliced).

                                                                    1. How is this compared to the International calibre HK/Taipei famous Tung Lok or Fook Lam Moon? I never eaten there but my friend says it's probably the best chinese restaurant ever.

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: Han Lukito

                                                                        I think it might be comparing apples and oranges, as the styles of cuisine is quite different; Cantonese for Tung Lok (maybe even a bit of Teochew) and Fook Lam Moon vs Sichuan for China Village.

                                                                        1. re: Limster

                                                                          As you note, this was not the Cantonese cooking of Sun Tung Lok. Yet, for but a couple dishes, it's not just Sichuan either. I'd hesitate to call it "Imperial", a term that gets overused, because we didn't have that many precious ingredients. I dunno.

                                                                          The other difference from the restaurants Han cites is the setting and service. At Sun Tung Lok, we were in a quiet, private dining room. The place settings were much fancier - fine porcelain with silver chargers, gold-plated chopsticks, tea cups so thin you could see through them, etc. China Village is an unassuming neighborhood restaurant, not a grand place.

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