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Chowdown Report: Chef Liu’s Tasting Menu @ Hunan, Fresno

Melanie Wong Jun 1, 2008 08:23 AM

Yesterday 16 chowhounds, half from Fresno/Clovis and half from the Bay Area, enjoyed an elegant tasting menu prepared Chef Zhongyi Liu of Hunan Chinese Cuisine. We’d made our booking two weeks in advance to allow the chef enough time to source some special ingredients for our meal.

Photos to come, for now, here’s the menu. ‘Hounds please tell us about your favorites and impressions of the evening.

CHEF’S TASTING MENU | 31 MAY 2008

Appetizer (cold plate):

Tiger Skin Jalapeño Chilies
Coral Daikon Roll
Sesame Jellyfish Salad
Cold Salmon Salad
Sichuan Peppercorn Sliced Yellow-crowned Chicken

Soup:

Squab with Tian Ma Soup

Main Course:

Tanjia Abalone with Scallop Mousse and Fish Maw
Two Varieties Shrimps
Napa Cabbage with Chestnut
Sichuan Eight Treasure Duck
Hunan-style Fresh and Pickled Chilies Steamed Whole Rock Cod

Dessert:

Sichuan Pan Fried Eight Treasure Chinese Yam Paste

PRICE: $50 PER PERSON

Many fine wines were shared between the two tables, including:

2006 “J” Russian River Valley Pinot Gris
1997 Zind-Humbrecht “Clos Windsbuhl” Pinot Gris
1998 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkastler-Badstube Riesling Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
2001 P. J. Valckenberg Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstück Riesling Kabinett Rheinhessen
2006 Hayman Hill “Interchange” Reserve Selection Santa Barbara County
2005 Kuentz-Bas “Tradition” Riesling Alsace
2006 Fetzer “Valley Oaks” California Gewurztraminer
2003 Osoyoos-Larose “Le Grand Vin” red wine, VQA Okanagan Valley
2006 Castle Rock Monterey County Pinot Noir
1998 Zind-Humbrecht “Clos Saint Urban” Rangen de Thann Grand Cru Riesling

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Hunan Restaurant
6716 N Cedar Ave Ste 104, Fresno, CA 93710

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  1. Ruth Lafler RE: Melanie Wong Jun 1, 2008 08:26 PM

    Fabulous meal, although perhaps not quite up to the famous Year of the Monkey dinner.

    I think my favorites were:

    Sichuan Peppercorn chicken (no other peppers to mask or dilute the Sichuan peppers, so their floral/citrus qualities really came through)

    Two varieties shrimp: bars of chopped shrimp encased in a delicate, crisp crust on a bed of individually fried crusted shrimp (similar to the way shrimp are fried for the shrimp with walnuts in mayo sauce prep) and sliced strawberries in a delicate sauce and dusted with sesame seeds. This prep really brought out the natural sweetness of the shrimp -- the combination of shrimp and strawberries was unusual but amazingly delicious.

    Eight treasure duck -- the duck version of the more common deboned whole chicken stuffed with sticky rice, sausage, etc., and deep fried. The crispness of the skin and the duck fat mixing with the moist, almost risotto-like rice was decadent.

    1998 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkastler-Badstube Riesling Kabinett, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer -- great balance of sugar and acid and just a slight hint of the characteristic petrol quality. I was sorry I was driving so I couldn't kill the bottle. Our wonderful waiter, Sun, was happy to inherit what was left, though.

    The prettiest dish was the daikon coral roll, which was plated to look like two flowers, including stems and leaves.

    1. d
      david kaplan RE: Melanie Wong Jun 2, 2008 06:53 AM

      It was a great meal -- thank you and P.B. for organizing!

      Like for Ruth, two of the standouts for me were sichuan peppercorn chicken and eight treasure duck. My other favorites were:

      Cold salmon salad: raw salmon cured with a mild vinegar with sliced onions and chiles. It was in the pickled herring or ceviche family. I liked the sourness and gentle heat with the soft, almost creamy fish.

      Tanjia Abalone with Scallop Mousse and Fish Maw: the scallop mousse with fish maw was delicate, served with abalone braised for days in a rich, meaty liquid. They sliced the abalone into half-inch-thick slabs. Having only ever had Jai Yun's abalone preparation -- thin slices scrambled with egg white -- I was delighted by the dense, earthy flesh.

      Hunan-style Fresh and Pickled Chilies Steamed Whole Rock Cod: I liked the simplicity of the steamed fish, smeared with chiles and green onions. Although I was getting full by the end of the meal, I was craving some spicy heat, and the chiles delivered.

      1. Cecelia RE: Melanie Wong Jun 2, 2008 07:39 AM

        Thank you Melanie and Polar Bear for organizing this fine event. It was such a pleasure to meet some of the local Fresno houunds and to reconnect with some SF/Bay Area friends.

        My favorites for the evening were:

        Tiger Skin Jalapenos: very nice bite
        Coral Daikon Roll: beautiful presentation and wonderful flavor.
        Cold Salmon Salad: very clean flavor and slight vinegary finish
        LuoHan Two Varieties Shrimps: I loved the shrimp "cake." Very fresh and sweet strawberries on the side were a great addition to the very fresh and sweet shrimp.

        I was not as fond of the Squab with Tian Ma Soup. The meat seemed a bit tough to me, although the dried scallop was wonderful.

        Many fantastic wines served. Thank goodness my sister was driving.

        Wonderful service -- friendly and efficient.

        Again, thanks to all who came and to Melanie and Dave for organizing this night.

        Cece

        1. j
          jmnewel RE: Melanie Wong Jun 2, 2008 02:46 PM

          Let me add my thanks to Melanie and Dave for organizing this wonderful dinner. Our tablemates Jed, Eric, Doug, and Derek were extremely pleasant company. While we go to San Francisco regularly for the food, it is rare, in my experience, that anyone comes to Fresno for the food.

          I liked all the appetizers, especially the Cold Salmon Salad, and even the Sesame Jellyfish Salad. Texture, not taste (it didn't have much) was the point of this dish. Crunchy and slippery all at the same time. Unique in my experience. I couldn't figure out the tiger skin part, but the stuffed jalapeños were excellent with just enough heat, but not too much.

          The broth of the soup was delicious, but the bony meat that had cooked at least all day with it, could easily have been removed since it wasn't really edible and just got in the way.

          I very much liked the Dried Scallop Ball served with the abalone (better than the abalone, really), and the Two Varieties Shrimp was great! As was the Eight Treasure Duck. My tablemates advised me that the steamed whole fish would do me in with its heat, so I passed on that, though they all seemed to like it a lot.

          The yam paste dessert is an acquired taste, I think, and one that I have not yet acquired. Maybe in time.......!

          2 Replies
          1. re: jmnewel
            Ruth Lafler RE: jmnewel Jun 2, 2008 03:09 PM

            I believe the name "tiger skin" comes from the way the skin of the jalapenos is charred, leaving marks, when they're cooked.

            I actually liked the yam paste dessert. I didn't give it much thought, but I remember looking down at my empty plate and thinking that I must have been enjoying it, because I finished it even though I was past full. It was sort of sweet, starchy bland comfort food.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler
              Melanie Wong RE: Ruth Lafler Jun 3, 2008 12:19 PM

              Yes, that's the origin of the name. The other times I've had the roasted chilies, they've been left whole and unstuffed, so that it is easier to see the stripes. Filled and then cut into sections, it's not as clear.

              Oh, and I made a mistake with headcount. I shouldn't try to type in the morning after an evening of revelry! We had only 15 people, not 16. My table was missing one person and we had extra food leftover.

          2. fresnohotspot RE: Melanie Wong Jun 2, 2008 05:30 PM

            Thank you Melanie and PB for making this dinner happen. I thoroughly enjoyed the dishes and was even more delighted with the fellow diners at my table. Three were from the Bay area and four others were local. All were well traveled and incredibly knowledgeable (passionately) about food experiences. I regret not having the time to get to know the hounds at the other table... next time. The food preparation reflected the dedication of Chef Liu to his art. I understand some of the food prep took several days, not counting the effort to secure some of the ingredients from out of town. The dishes and the sequence of serving were sophisticatedly simple. I expected a fiery selection to represent the provincial Hunan cuisine, but instead we were served a more earthy series of tastes, leading up to an exquisite duck presentation, and finally the chili rock cod. There were at least two photographers in our group and I hope they post their shots of the dishes. I echo the comment by Ruth, that the Coral Daikon roll was the prettiest, and this appetizer was a refreshing stimulus to my taste buds. You could almost hear it sing - here come da food.

            1. ChowFun_derek RE: Melanie Wong Jun 5, 2008 02:33 PM

              Thanks to Melanie and Polar Bear for organizing this fun weekend...filled (and I do mean FILLED!) with fun , food and good folks! I enjoyed the banquet, spoken of here, but I enjoyed our lunch the next day at Chef Liu's as well! (this after our Pho for breakfast!)
              If anyone calls up the lunch menu, I'd love to relive it as well...

              Can't anyone get this man to move back to the Bay area huh?

              any inverstors out there?

              1. d
                dml RE: Melanie Wong Jun 9, 2008 01:04 AM

                It was a four-hour drive for me up to Fresno from LA, and another three hours afterwards on to San Francisco, but chef Liu definitely won for most effort last saturday. When we arrived, we heard that he'd been cooking for days in preparation, and had been up until six that morning working on the feast. His work paid off, and the food we had showed his talent and skill.

                There were some familiar combos and dishes--jellyfish salad with sesame, crispy duck stuffed with sticky rice--and some very original ones that, had I been served them under different circumstances, I would never guess had emerged from a Chinese kitchen--raw, lightly-cured salmon salad, deep-fried shrimp with strawberries. These, together with the remaining dishes, covered a remarkable range of flavors, textures, and influences, and all of them were ordered and paced so as to maintain interest and not wear us out even with twelve dishes over three hours.

                Though not necessarily exciting, the pairing of napa cabbage and chestnut was unexpectedly good, a lighter dish that gave a break to the meal just when it was needed. The duck was beautifully browned and crispy, the whole fish sweet and moist.

                The meal included two firsts for me: both jellyfish and abalone were new experiences. Both were hard to judge but easy to like. The salad was delicate but also well-balanced. The abalone was dense but not tough, with an flavor earthy and a little smoky as well as scallop-like. I can only hope that other versions are this good.

                A few dishes suffered from a heavy hand in one way or another: the daikon roll and the shrimp with strawberries were both overly sweet, making them easy to like but not necessarily balanced or nuanced. And the sichuan peppercorn sauce on the sliced chicken appetizer was so intense as to render the chicken valuable only for texture.
                It was a great chowdown. Thanks to Mr Bear and Melanie for organizing!

                1. Melanie Wong RE: Melanie Wong Aug 22, 2008 09:35 AM

                  Here are the photos of this landmark dinner,
                  http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/may...

                  Best to click on "slideshow", then click on the bottom margin of the frames for the captions.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Melanie Wong
                    fresnohotspot RE: Melanie Wong Aug 25, 2008 11:26 AM

                    Thanks Melanie for posting these photos. The subtle tastes of those dishes come back to me with each shot, and Chef Liu's artistry is a visual treat as well.

                    1. re: fresnohotspot
                      Melanie Wong RE: fresnohotspot Aug 25, 2008 11:59 AM

                      Sorry it took me so long, completely forgot about it. When I read Ms Dunlop's piece on Beijing specialties, http://www.chow.com/stories/11258 , mention of an imperial banquet jogged my memory. Chef Liu's cooking is probably as close to an imperial banquet as we in the west can find. You're so lucky to have him in your backyard. Please do challenge him to make his special dishes. After our meal, he did say to the few of us still hanging out that he enjoyed making them, rather than the simpler day-to-day things on his menu. It does take some planning though to give him enough time to source ingredients. I felt that for our first banquet in Fresno, he was a little rusty. But I gave him some very detailed feedback, and I think he did a fabulous job with this third of three dinners. I hope to do something in the fall where we give him an even bigger budget to work with to show off more.

                    2. re: Melanie Wong
                      Cecelia RE: Melanie Wong Sep 10, 2008 07:22 AM

                      Thank you for the photos, Melanie. They did indeed bring back the camraderie and fantabulous meal. Would love to participate in a fall reprise.

                      Cece

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