New Yorkers who have advanced to the deepest darkest labyrinths of Chinese cuisine -- from the egg foo yung simplicity of our childhoods to the "brilliant freakishness" of spicy, hot and oily Szechuan logic -- struggle to be treated like grownups in the condescending climate of the high-rent Chinese restaurant. And we wonder why we bother to stray from the rich underground gourmet territory of Chatham Square and sleazy but wondrous uptown Broadway, where the accent is authentic -- at least until fame strikes.
Fate's sweet kiss has been sadly debilitating for the House of Chan. There it is at Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street, the very gizzard of touristtown. Eager innocents fairly stumble over the doorstep. They demand the familiar. Possibly they seek a sweet-and-sour breakthrough. Brave, but not fearless, they are willing to forgo eggroll to sample sesame chicken livers.
If the House of Chan ever wore the badge of authenticity, that badge long ago corroded. Alas, when you're conditioned to condescend, the pattern of mediocrity is difficult to break.
The rooms themselves are dignified and noncommittal. The menu, a proud, bound volume of high-rent prose, is mostly Cantonese. To the nouveau Szechuan convert, Canton is nowhere. "When you're into Szechuan, you can't go home again," a fan of that fiery cuisine assures me. Yet canton has a highly varied culinary tradition. It was here merchants and foreign traders became rich enough to cultivate the art of eating. And it was here that many chefs of Peking's imperial household fled after the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, no doubt collecting recipes en route. The House of Chan menu is lyrical and frank. Dishes are "elusively shaded with garlic," "lightly seasoned," "agreeably touched," "delicately contrived." Indeed, for all but the most timid tastes, flavors are far too elusive and texture is much too delicate.
Still, there are promising juxtaposition: crisp browned sea bass in a sweet-sour sauce with finely slivered Chinese fruits ($4.75), Mandarin duck with crystallized ginger and a Chinese orange liqueur-spiked sauce ($4.25) and walnut shrimp song ($3.75), a handsome medley of textures topped with toasted rice noodles. The House of Chan steak ($6.50) -- thick-sliced, rare broiled sirloin, served atop bok choy and snow peas in a lightly garlicked sauce -- was once a favorite Serious Beef alternative of one demanding carnivore. Then three times in a row, the steak was mushy. It tasted more steamed than broiled and our steak maven went back to The Palm.
Now, in our search for haute Chinese splendor, we were led back to the House of Chan by Eileen Lo Ferretti, Kwangtung-born and a fine cook herself. We ordered a $17 Peking duck (traditionally made from a select Chinese fowl that was ancestor to the Long Island duckling) 24 hours in advance, as required, and asked for Mr. Wong on arrival, as instructed. Our hopeful six were immediately ushered to a table an inch removed from the kitchen. At La Grenouille, less emotionally secure citizens would have succumbed at such a blow. Here proximity to the kitchen was a compliment to the Peking duck (ensuring its speedy arrival), if not to us. But first came a sampler of appetizers, tai ping poon ($2.95 for two): a soggy, boring, fishy lobster roll and weary re-fried shrimp, with superb meaty, flavorful spare ribs and zesty beef sate.
Then the ritual celebration of Peking duck. First the crackling crisp skin was served, wrapped in a thin pancake with a flower-cut scallion and spicy sweet hoi-sin sauce. Incredibly, the three portions of skin were served each time on a fresh plate. Then a fourth plate for the duck meat, julienned with a medley of crisp vegetables strips, handsome red and green. The service was all snap, with three separate presentations of unscented washcloths, steaming hot, waved in the air to cool them. But after the duck, the food was consistently ordinary. Our steamed Dover sole sprinkled with fresh ginger ($4.25) was depressingly wishy-washy. The steak was mildly seasoned, mildly mealy and the vegetables beneath it were so overcooked that Mme Ferretti summoned the captain and scolded him in Chinese. "How did you have the nerve to serve vegetables so outrageously overdone?" she asked. He shrugged. And she translated his reply: "You were only one Chinese and five Caucasian, so I ordered it Caucasian-style." Dinner cost $69.50, including generous tips.
"There are two things to aim for in life: to get what you want, then enjoy it," said the message stuffed into my fortune cookie. When it comes to getting what you want, life, I hope, is less difficult than the high-rent Chinese restaurant.
* * *
A sense of tacky déjà vu inspires the forebodings as you walk into The Flower Drum. The room is very Fu Manchu -- illuminated fans, scrolls, tassels, red lanterns, dated and nearly deserted except for a King Farouk figure in the corner with two formerly young foxes. Still, cliché or not, fans and tassels are better than orange Formica and toddlers in the next booth dropping bok choy remnants in your hair.
After one unmemorable lunch and a slightly more auspicious dinner- splendid dumplings, fatty pressed duck, excellent spiced shredded beef, irresistible candied pecans…with plum wine, a gift of the house… I was determined that next time we would somehow inspire The Flower Drum to please us.
Flower Drum is dedicated to seasonal cuisine. Many good Chinese restaurants offer unlisted specialties of the season, but owner Pao Peter Lee, a former calligrapher at the United Nations, offers four different menus, emphasizing warmth and energy with the bubbling firepot for winter, coolness and airy lightness for summer with fresh lichees and pineapple. Spring emphasizes seafood and exploits asparagus and new bamboo shoots. Autumn brings chestnuts and the crab, at its plumpest as it prepares to survive the winter -- fat doomed crabs to be seized by Flower Drum for fast searing and then a quick sauté in hoi-sin and rice wine. Alongside these seasonal overtures are what Mr. Lee has designated "universal preferences" and "San Francisco Inventions"-- a roster of chow mein and chop suey, and "Authentic Regional Specialties." But how to communicate? How to convince the staff you want your Szechuan dish searingly spicy and your vegetables to crunch?
This particular late summer evening a supernatural communication transpired. Some subliminal magic. Did we look very rich, unmistakably sophisticated, hopeful and jaded? Or is Peter Lee always lying in wait for seven flexible gourmands to relieve the boredom of eggrolls and San Francisco Inventions? What did we do? Well, it takes wit and presence to choreograph a great dinner for seven. Democracy doesn't work. Seven opinions are chaos. So two self-appointed co-generals informed Mr. Lee we wanted a dish of the season, then something spicy -- very spicy, truly spicy -- and entrees served no more than one or two at a time, with an assortment of appetizers for openers.
"Flounder for your seasonal dish," he suggested, "then hot, spicy chicken…and one beef, one shrimp, one pork." It sounded fatally vague to me. But he seemed excited, so we surrendered.
From that moment on, dinner was sheer dazzle. It had suspense, intrigue, climax, falling action and coda. First came the hors d'oeuvre ($10.75 for seven): sticky sweet spare ribs; pillow chicken a moist lemony cushion of chicken breast in an opened envelope of silver foil), and spring roll, a flat, meaty, delicately crisp crepe-like package. Then a waiter arrived flourishing a column of tiny, interlocking, individual casseroles with the steamed dumplings, two each served on a wilted cabbage leaf with a sauce of soy and slivered fresh ginger ($3.10 for all).
Each entrée, the fish in solitary splendor, the rest in duo, was presented with pride, then quickly served -- each on a fresh plate -- by a team of waiters. With it we sipped Wan Fu, sixteen ounces of wine the label boasts is "unique for Chinese fare, especially produced (in France) from select and sumptuous grapes to complement all delicate Chinese dishes" ($5.25). Wan Fu -- it means 10,000 joys -- is sheer genius. A blend of Bordeaux whites too plebeian to market well otherwise, it sells briskly in its Chinese label and is best served icy cold lest the taste linger.
Shrimp supreme ($4.50), a Flower Drum elaboration of a Szechuan dish, had a subtle popcorn scent from its quick corn oil seal followed by a fast bath in a bubbling hot vegetable puree. With it came slippery savory beef ($4.25), a summer seasonal -- tender beef seared and sautéed and served with velvety crinkles of the fungus "tree ear" and crisp vegetables. Then fresh plates for chin tsen fish ($3.95), flounder, characteristically bland and delicate, served with strips of ginger, scallion and sweet winter melon preserve. And a side dish of marinated raw cucumber in a sweet-tart vinaigrette. Next, kung-pao chicken ($4.25), "authentic, not commercial," Mr. Lee observed, warning us to watch for slivers of dynamite pepper. "The Korean ambassador has the record for eating hot peppers," he noted. "Seven and a half."
With the chicken so smooth and cool in texture, truly biting in heat, there came wedges of scallion pancake ($3.50 to feed seven twice), crisp and oniony with the doughy inside texture of a spiritual potato pancake. On the table was a complimentary order of Szechuan spicy salad: tart pickled cabbage, celery and carrot. Then, with everyone nearing a state of stunned rapture, there came mildly spicy shredded pork and a mélange of Chinese vegetables, listed on the check as double delight, $5. No one wanted dessert, but Lee insisted we each try just a nubbin of honey crisp banana -- the fruit dipped in bubbling hot syrup, then into ice water for a crackling candied effect ($1.50 for two). The coda, compliments of our host, was two tiny brass teapots of plum wine and crisp sweet roasted pecans on a tray with illuminated plastic flowers.
This imperial feast cost $70.80 plus tax. Without asking, the house had served us a portion and a half of each dish; even so, minus the $17.50 bar bill, the check averaged less than $8 a person.
* * *
Without Ping-Pong or Henry Kissinger, we'd scored a stunning communications breakthrough at The Flower Drum. Could we pierce the curtain of disdain at the Shun Lee Dynasty? The Shun Lee is a high-rent temple of Chinese gastronomy, fabled, widely-sung, with a village festival air as imagined by Russell Wright -- joyful and original in its youth, now rather cliché and slightly tacky. Here Grace Chu's students celebrate their nutritional valedictory at an intoxicating twelve-course banquet. And even a temperate dinner for two can be cold and elusive. When we complained that a vacuum of service had spoiled one glorious dinner, we were told: "The Immigration Service seized five of our waiters today." Another evening, a waiter stalked off and refused to return when, in a lingual impasse, we asked to see the captain. "You make him lose face" was the explanation.
Still I recall mostly sublime appetizers to toast and warm over a flickering blue flame: tender, savory dumplings moist and meaty spare riblets, a crisp and fragile spring roll. And a cleverly controlled contrast of textures in the spiced shredded beef, plus that bizarre but properly pasty Chinese white bread served with briskly crisp fried duck to dip in spiced toasted salt.
Attempting to venture beyond the unpromising limitations of the tailored-for-lunch menu one noon with three old China hands from the Luce empire, we found our captain polite but perfunctory, like a wind-up doll for the tourist trade suggesting "our most popular dishes." A sweet-as-candy-and-sour pork (complete with maraschino cherry), mildly spicy Szechuan lobster, beef with snow peas and steamed chicken with cashews were served in what high-rent Chinese restaurants imagine is a vision of French elegance, American style: heaped by the captain, four mounds in uninviting hodgepodge on each dinner plate. They proved disappointing and unmemorable.
Determined now to communicate both the seriousness of a Chinese scholar and a lofty cuisinary purpose, I phoned Shun Lee Dynasty ahead, reserved a table for six and asked for "the same bean paste cake we had at Mme Chu's banquet last May."
"We'll try," the maitre d' promised. "Ask for Norman."
But Norman disappeared in a puff of smoke, once we'd been ushered to a gold-foil-ribboned alcove and assured, "Your dessert is waiting." Our captain was unmoved by bean paste cake credentials and unimpressed by our insistence on "very crisp vegetables…very spicy seasoning…crisp and spicy, crisp and spicy."
Something was amiss in the kitchen that night. Except for an excellent hotly spicy shredded beef, the food was timidly seasoned and the sauces sadly gluey. The hot and sour soup (85 cents) -- at its best a piquant egg-thickened sea of bitter, tart, and silky bland, with bean curd, strips of fleshy black mushroom, wicked tree ears, fresh bean sprouts and pork -- had a single urgent and unpleasant taste. The won ton soup (75 cents) was thick with meats, vegetables and tender sublime won ton in a tasteless broth. Shark fin soup ($1.60) is an inscrutability to me: I am unmoved by its strings of gelatinous odds and ends. The best of the soups tasted turned out to be a richly flavored abalone soup (95 cents) and a salty sizzling rice and shrimp (85 cents) with that pleasant crunch of popcorn-like rice.
Happy family ($4.25) -- a kitchen sink collection of fluffy light shrimp balls and meat balls, with chicken, shrimp, abalone, mushrooms, snow peas and bamboo shoots -- was like any happy family, in a momentary fit of depression. Chef Wang's scallops ($3.95) with shredded pork, mushrooms and water chestnuts, were a happier choice. The crisp fried whole boned squirrel fish ($4.50) was not quite boneless but it was shrimpless (in defiance of the menu's description). I suspect the pressed duck ($3.75) would have been exquisite -- it was crisp and flavorful -- if it had not been re-heated to a semi-petrified brittleness.
Our dessert ($7.50 for six) was admittedly an alternative to the kumquat-canned-lichee syndrome, but as a pastry, it was quite primitive, a dry tasteless dough wrapped around a heart of grainy sweet bean paste. With it: a bowl of hot brown "dragon's eyes" soup, floating a lichee-like fruit called long-an. Everyone sipped. It tasted brown.
* * *
There simply is no guaranteed formula for avoiding insult and neglect in the high-rent Chinese restaurant. But then, if communication were like ESP, we wouldn't need Bell Telephone. For now, though, I will leave Shun Lee Dynasty and the House of Chan to the middle-reachers and the wary. It's back to the hazardous trail of the fickle Szechuan kitchen at underground prices. If I can only get there before the chef quits and fame strikes and the prices rise and they start holding back on the pepper and waxing elusive with the garlic.
* * *
Take an Old-Fashioned Wok…
The innocent fancy for Chinese eating occasionally escalates into an incurable passion for Chinese cooking. Our fitfully ambitious cook acquires a wok and cleaver, sips rosebud tea with the doyenne of Chinese cooking schools, and participates in a Peking duck hanging O'Horgan style.
* * *
The sex life of the ginkgo tree is a fine point of Chinese culture. And Grace Chu, the tiny matriarch of the Chinese cooking establishment, considers herself a missionary of Chinese culture among the childlike heathen. On a matter of nutrition, she observes: "Chinese have very good theory but no experience. Americans have experience, not so good theory. You go too much one way and then too much the other way. Still," she smiles beneficently, "it's nice you're trying."
She holds up a can of ginkgo nuts for the benefit of the attentive advanced eight in Banquet Cooking. "You can buy ginkgo nuts fresh. There is even ginkgo tree in Central Park. The ginkgo tree has sex, you know, but in Central Park there are only male trees. And the pulp stinks. If you peel without rubber gloves, you hand stinks three days. So I suggest you buy the canned ones."
There is a fierce but delicate rivalry in the Chinese cooking establishment. Madame Chu is a venerable pioneer. Florence Lin and Dorothy Lee have their disciples. But they all felt like wallflowers when Craig Claiborne singled out Virginia Lee to co-author his monumental Chinese cookbook. Fanning this rivalry are the perennial students, the compulsive scholars of exotic cuisine, and the professional food folk, who enroll in first one class and then another, collecting, comparing, challenging, their grease-spattered mentors to greater audacities of Peking duck and Szechuan authenticity.
When Craig trained at the elbow of Virginia Lee, Newsday's food editor Barbara Rader was his classmate, plus a duo of culinary coaches from New Jersey's adult education system and Marcella Hazan, dean of her own cooking conservatory. Now Marcella and the symbiotic team from New Jersey were wielding their cleavers in Mme. Chu's advanced class for spring, along with my friend the adventuress, Paula Wolfert (a power behind the H. Roth's cooking school scene), somebody's Japanese housekeeper and a small string of amateurs, the ambitious housewives.
Eight chunky cleavers peel broccoli stems around Grace Lee's expanded kitchen table as Madame chatters a dazzling litany of philosophy and folklore, nostalgia and nutrition. She is playful and punny, cunning and competitive, infinitely loveable, pumping professionals for the clues to her competitors…clues, ha…eccentricities. "Florence Lin teach her way. I teach mine. So…no conflict." She shakes her head over a New York Times recipe for "Revisionist Peking Duck."
"Orange rind. Ha. I'm going to ask Craig who teach him Revisionist Peking Duck."
The menu for today's lunch, Xeroxed and stapled, calls for pork, cellophane noodles and preserved kohlrabi soup; a pork dish with kohlrabi shreds (illustrating two uses for kohlrabi); broccoli, quick stir-fried with water chestnuts; a salad of the broccoli discards; stuffed boneless chicken, and a molded dessert of Chinese fruits: long-an and loquats, plus rice and black tea with rosebuds. "A different tea for every lesson." The class is into subtlety and variations: two kinds of soy sauce, light and dark, with salt as an alternative for variety; peanut oil played against sesame; two kinds of sesame oil, indeed. All the conventions of contrast in texture and repetition of shape are automatic. "Principles are more important than specific recipes," Mme Chu lectures. "Color, that's in your imagination. Appeal to your eye, appeal to your nose, stimulate the glands, make you want to eat. It is art rather than science."
Now she swiftly skins a chicken. "Here are the pajamas," she announces, holding the skin like a pair of plucked Doctor Dentons to be stuffed and trussed and baked. "You may mix the stuffing with your hands. I don't want some people to suffer mentally or emotionally. Mix with chopstick if you prefer." She explains how to cut an egg with a string. "In China we can't afford knife." And why it doesn't matter if a wok spatters grease. "In China, kitchen has mud floor." And she expands on inscrutability. "For some things in Chinese cooking there is rhyme or reason. Sometimes, no rhyme or reason, just tradition."
After an amiable but persistent two hours of peeling, diagonal slicing, shredding and reconstituting, the ingredients are ready. Now there is a hectic, unbelievably efficient and speedy bout at the stove. And in minutes, there is a giggling student processional -- each carries a platter to the handsome round parlor table, set with a profusion of pattern and ivory chopsticks resting on a whale chopstick holder.
"In every class I want to have something to make you say 'Oh' and 'Ah'," Mme Chu admits, over the Oh's and Ah's. "But not too many of them. If it's all too difficult, you'll never do it at home." It is the final lesson. Graduates are invited to a banquet staged for Madame by Shun Lee Dynasty. The New Jersey ladies are urged to "teach and spread the gospel…I talk too much I think."
Oh no, cry the students in dutiful chorus.