Chinese New Year Feasting (and Apres ZAP) at R & G Lounge in SF Chinatown
Chinatown’s R&G Lounge was the site for Saturday’s Chinese banquet du jour and AfterZAP dinner. I was the first of our party of eight to check-in for our reservation. The assistant manager, Angel, soon spotted me asking which group I was with, and said that if we could wait another ten minutes, she could put us in a private room. That was a no-brainer for us amid the chaos of the double-witching hour of a Saturday night and the new year. My host was quite pleased and I made of point of letting him know that there would otherwise be a $500+ minimum for these arrangements. He’s no slouch himself, having the foresight to pre-order the chicken stuffed with sticky rice for our dinner banquet.
Upstairs we had the first room closest to the kitchen. A loud celebration was in full swing with karaoke and speeches and I was really glad we had the private room to be away from the din.
For New Year, R&G has a one-page supplement menu with chef’s special recommendations in English. We’d ordered and loved the crispy pork shoulder before, so that was a no-brainer. The special vegetable dish was “A” choi topped with a black bean and garlic sauce, but the kitchen soon informed us it was sold out. I wanted to order the dried oysters in lettuce cups (ho see soong), but was outvoted.
House soup – The complimentary “old fire soup” of the day was beef and lotus root, and just lovely. With so many restaurants starting to charge for the house soup, I’m especially appreciative that it’s still “on the house” at R&G.
Two salt & pepper Dungeness crabs – Big and meaty, these were as good as ever. One friend commented that the seasoning was less salty this time, allowing more of the natural sweetness of the crab to shine through. Bryan “soupnoodles” and I reveled in each having a carapace filled with deep-fried crab mustard to savor. With the crab I enjoyed the one dry Riesling on the table, the 2005 Theo Minges spätlese trocken from the Pfalz.
Crispy pork shoulder - Served with yellow plum sauce and large strips of sweet pickled daikon and mustard greens. In the past this was just the shank portion, now it’s a bigger piece including the blade. I liked that the skin is separated from the meat and served on its own, the better to enjoy the crackly crunchy. The pickles were great. The meat was a bit drier than my recollection, but I’d still order this again. Fruity-style German Riesling spätlese weaves beautifully with sweet and sour flavors, and the very expressive 2007 Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck spätlese was up to this task.
Honey walnut prawns – My friends are crazy about the walnut prawns at R&G and we always get a double order. To my eye, the prawns looked even bigger than the last time I had them with a firm, lobster-like tooth to them. However, they had a bit too much of a flour coating and an excess of mayo. This dish is the soul mate of gee-whiz, and Bryan graced us with the 1997 Albert Boxler Gewurztraminer vendage tardive that was fabulous in its own right and even better with the prawns.
Braised tofu with baby bok choy – The first time I’ve tried the hong siu dofu here, and it was one of the misses of the evening. The blocks of tofu were rubbery and the saucing was rather insipid. I’d wanted something with tofu and our waiter had suggested the “three treasures” (stuffed tofu, eggplant and peppers), one of the specialties here. Formerly one of my favorites, however, the last two times that dish was unbearably greasy and clumped with cornstarch. I’m still in search of a good tofu dish here.
Peking duck – The other clunker of the night. The Peking duck has been up and down over the many years I’ve been dining at R&G, and right now it’s thumbs down. The skin was unevenly colored with some pale blotches and not as crackly as it should be. I don’t think it was a Cantonese roast duck dropped in the fryolater, as one poster has asserted, as the flavor was quite different and the coloration would be more even. Also the meat was rare and bloody next to the bone. Maybe it was rushed and handled carelessly in the drying and preparation process as well as the roasting. On a positive note, the steamed buns served with it were very light and fluffy. Also on the plus side, we had a 1993 Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese that was a weighty, beerenauslese wannabe loaded with botrytis, making it somewhat hard to match up. This was its best pairing, going stride for stride with the richness of the duck and sweet hoisin sauce.
Chicken stuffed with sticky rice – The blessed chicken was served without its head, which negates the concept of whole poultry for new year. I asked our waiter to bring us the head, and he explained in animated Cantonese to me, complete with a pantomime of revulsion, rejection, and a waving away arm motion, that when this dish is served to “fanyun” they get really upset at the sight of the chicken head and demand that it be removed from the table. My dining companions watched this exchange with amusement and said, “We got the gringo treatment, didn’t we?” My WASP host said he would specify “with the head” next time he orders it. The chicken was fried beautifully with golden, bubbly and crunchy skin. Other than its headless state, my other nit-pick would be that the glutinous rice stuffy was not mixed thoroughly. In one piece the stuffing was chockfull of lop cheong, and another had very little. I’ll also mention that the stuffing seemed to have less dried scallop and dried shrimp now and more of the fresh product. I liked this dish with the 1971 J. J. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich auslese. There was some controversy over whether this bottle was corked or not, and I voted in the “not corked” camp feeling that the funkiness was just part of the “firne” of very old Riesling.
Steamed pork hash with salted fish – My favorite version of this homestyle dish in a restaurant is here at R&G Lounge, and it did not disappoint us. Coarsely chopped fatty pork topped with shreds of ginger and “striped” hom yu. A lot of hom yu, four cross sections to be precise, which is more than in the past.
Large pea shoots with roasted garlic cloves – No “A” choi for us, and we had instead some tender pea shoots, dubbed by one of my tablemates as “the world’s greatest vegetable”. This substitution was not a hardship.
Steamed live black bass with ginger and scallions – Priced at $28 per pound, so a good 30% uptick from what Asian Pearl in Fremont charges, but this was a superior fish. Clear steamed with ginger and green onions. The flesh barely pulled from the bone and had the firm, dense texture and sweet taste that we prize so much in mong cho. The seasonings were less pronounced than at Asian Pearl and showed off the natural essence of the black bass more. I’ve been let down a few times here with the steamed fish, but not this night. This was absolutely perfect and my favorite of the evening. For this dish, I returned to our aperitif wine. This was an excellent pairing for the very refined and high-toned 2007 von Hövel Scharzhofberg kabinett, which was my favorite wine of the night as well.
We skipped the red bean soup dessert. I asked for oranges instead, which came with fortune cookies. We polished off a half-bottle of 2007 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle auslese, from the producer's top vineyard, for a sweet ending.
When the bill was presented, we also received a red envelope with a $25 coupon for a future dinner. With $60 corkage on six bottles, rice charge and tax, our tab was about $400, then a mandatory 15% service charge on top of that. Our host added more so that our service staff received an even $100 tip. Our waiter came back in to confirm that this was intentional, which was appreciated, and then beamed ear-to-ear. The karaoke party had departed and we were left in peace to finish our wines and more tea. We closed down the restaurant saying our “good-byes” shortly before 11pm.
German and Alsatian wines -
R & G Lounge
631 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108