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On Many Menus in: Chicago, Washington D.C., and Singapore

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Restaurants in Multiple Parts of the World

Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 19, 20, 21, 28, and 29


In CHICAGO, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce advises: 'Wander the Orient, only minutes from downtown–by cab, car, bus, or El.' Though we wish that they left out the 'O' word (see the article on 'Oriental is Passe' in this issue), we do take their advice. We try the El and take a train on its elevated Red Line. What a great view of the city. We ride to Chinatown for a few cents from 'The Loop,' as downtown is called.

Chinatown, the Chamber of Commerce advises has nearly eighteen thousand Chinese. Going under the ornate terra cotta gateway, we find one side of this Chinatown loaded with friendly older folk. They are gathering in small shops, lots of bakeries and eateries, in a grocery store or two, and on almost every street corner. It as early and except for them and vendors, not much goes on other than shopping and chatting early in the morning.

Across Archer Avenue we find Chinatown Square. This two-story two-sided mall is just beyond a small stage obviously used for local events. It is more alive and more modern. We like the dozen statues of the twelve animals that responded to Buddha’s call. It is a great 'watch the scene' spot and a lovely open area with places to sit, rest, and take it all in.

PHOENIX RESTAURANT at 2131 South Archer Avenue; Chicago IL: phone: (313) 328-0848 is across to the street and in that area. We climb a flight of stairs to eat there and are almost alone as it is before nine in the morning. Have to begin our dim sum breakfast checking off what we want on a list of fifty-six steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried, and sweet items. An hour later, trays of many of them are carried around for visual selection. By the time we leave, we are tempted to choose one or two more good-looking foods from the rolling wagons just beginning to bring around every selection. They have lots of room to traverse the wide aisles of this four-room restaurant, two reserved for private parties.

Beef Tendon with Bean Paste is a yummy beginning. It provides considerable contrast for the more mundane Chiu Chow Dumpling. We devour the Fu Pei Guen, a phenomenal chicken-plus stuffed bean curd skin. Tasty and tender Chicken Feet with Home Made Sauce are heavenly. My companion devours Pork Stomach with Black Pepper, amazed at how great it is. We both pig out on the Squid with Shrimp Sauce, Pan Fried Chive Shrimp Dumplings, and the Steamed Malay Sponge Cake.

We return that evening to see if their dinner is as good. Before being seated, we admire a young bride and groom and their wedding party. The cold dishes set out for them look luscious as do other items served later at their $348 per table menu. They are in the big room where we had our delicious dim sum earlier. Their other food, viewed on trips to the facilities, look so good we wish we knew them. The Bird’s Nest with Shrimp and Pan Fried Scallop in Egg White Sauce looks lavish as we wander by.

Seated that evening in a smaller dining room, we dabble in cucumber-carrot-daikon bao cai waiting for our Arrowroot Soup. Its main fault is arriving in a glass bowl; in that it cools down too quickly. Looking lost in the broth are squares of root vegetable and pieces of spare rib; the liquid is an all-too-thin vegetable stock. The contents in it are soft, savory, long-cooked, and lovely, the liquid is not.

Shrimp with Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms is a suggestion of the owner, Eddie Cheung. Good and probably more expensive per pound than dried shiitake, we nonetheless miss the dried mushrooms because they are more flavorful and valued for their rich woodsy flavor. Beef with Seasonal Chinese Vegetable comes loaded with asparagus stems and fresh red shallots. Bean Curd with Minced Pork Szechuan Sauce is piled high with minced pickled mustard green. The tofu is surrounded with slices of steamed Japanese eggplant. It proves to be a fine foil for the salty piquant topping. Both are fantastic dishes.

At the next table, a large group of Chinese with their out-of-town Western guests are celebrating. Their lacquered Peking Duck comes as two courses. We almost want to celebrate with them. However, we are glad we are not when their less-than-lovely over-fried egg rolls arrive. Later we again want to go over for their Dungeness Crab Fried With Beer. Had we ordered it, the crab steamed with Chinese wine would have been our choice, as it is at another table of all Chinese two tables away.

Everyone is eating the mostly Cantonese food at this Phoenix. Some are enjoying more western-inspired Chinatown-type offerings, but most are eating what some call 'real Chinese food.' Ordering carefully is a must here because they do cater to western tastes. The kitchen can cook for either. Case in point, the Bean Curd with Mix Seafood, a Bitter Melon Malay Style, and Yin Yang Fried Rice, Yangzhou style were simply wonderful. Our nearby American table folk end their meal with Fried Rice Fok-Kin Style. It looks greasy, wet, and dark. Ours is dry and appropriately made without soy sauce.

You can indulge in good Chinese food in this windy city. It is available in Chinatown restaurants in the Mall. If one tries them all, just in Chinatown, that can take weeks; outside of Chinatown, maybe months. If crowds on that Saturday night tell the tale, competent places serve great barbecue, savvy Sichuan, fine Fujian, super Shanghainese, and other good regional Chinese food.

BEN PAO at 52 West Illinois Street; Chicago IL; phone: (312) 222-1888 is outside of Chinatown and in the city. Everyone touts this upscale and popular place on the corner of Dearborn. it is totally different from any other Chicago experience. It is 'in' as they say, and at a mid-week lunch their seventy tables are full. The crowd is mostly young, well-dressed, and drinking their way through the meal. The huge bar area bursts with those with and without reservations, many nights and every weekend.

People chow down on Starters and Small Plates and other selections from the section called: Satay Bar Menu. We are asked three times what we want to drink; and that was after we twice advise that all we want is good green tea. This restaurant belongs to the 'Lettuce Entertain Group' and reservations are taken at corporate headquarters by calling 1-888-Lettuce.

Understated, gorgeous, and chic are words that describe this black and red place with its few well-selected accents of white. The wait-staff wears black. You have seen similar outfits in the movies, sort of Chinese pajamas trimmed in red. A small black vase sits on every table, a big white spider chrysanthemum is in each one. Our tea, when it does arrive, comes in a small black Japanese-style teapot, and it is just OK.

After ordering, half wanting brown, the others white rice, they both come together in a single stainless steel bowl. Before any food arrives, a tiny soy sauce-type dish comes to tease the appetite. On it, half dozen thin slices of slightly pickled cucumber topped with, you guessed it, a few black sesame seeds and a small sliver of red pepper.

The kitchen forgets to remove the strings from our Sugar Snap Peas & Three Mushrooms order. We tell the manager as he stops by to ask how everything is. His immediate response, “We always serve them that way.” We try to educate him otherwise but he does not want to hear it. To his credit, he reappears later to offer a weak apology. Then he mentions that he just learned that when this vegetable came in, they did not have time nor staff to string them. He sees that our plates have clumps of half chewed stringy leftovers, but does not offer a replacement dish. Would not have wanted another made the same way because the peas are tossed in at the end and come to the table half raw, half cold. We do like cold melting-mouth peas for snack, but not in a cooked dish. Also, the amount of any type of mushroom is minimal and the sauce tasteless.

On the menu, it says that the Black-Peppered Scallops are a 'Ben Pao Speciality.' The only thing special is that they are capitalized on the menu. They are blackened and of course come with a few strips of red pepper. They also come with thick Chinese broccoli stems. Know that the kitchen does not have time to peel or cook them properly. We already said we like vegetables crispy, here they are in need of culinary attention. The egg roll comes black to match the decor, bet that was unintentional.

If drinks and ambiance are a must, and desserts required, this may be your place. Did not taste any even though the waiter and the manager each touted them twice. The choices include Banana Cheesecake, Chocolate Spring Rolls, and Coconut-Tapioca Custard. The menu says: There is no substitution for experiencing a meal in our Dining room.” We agree, but on a different level; their food neither pleased nor entertained us.

There are many other Chinese eateries in and outside of Chinatown. Knowledgeable folk who recommended these two places tell us to try MANDAR INN RESTAURANT at 2249 South Wentworth IL; phone: (313) 842-8828 and HONG MIN at 221 West Cermak Road; phone: (313) 842-5206. Both are in Chinatown. Outside of Chinatown, these same folk suggest SZECHUAN EAST at 340 East Ohio Street; phone: (312) 255-9200 and the SHANGHAI SUPPER CLUB at 108 East Superior Street; phone: (312) 573-6744. This club is on the fourth floor of the Peninsula Hotel, here called Shanghai Terrace. They loved them all but we did not have the time to go and compare. If any reader does and likes to write, brief us in considerable detail.

There is much to see, do, and eat in this wonderful city of three million folk. Must tell you of a place outside Chinatown that uses a great Chinese food product. It is a five-star Levy Restaurant called Spiaggia; 980 North Michigan Avenue; phone: (313) 280-2750. It is Italian and there we tasted a small rissoto-style appetizer sitting in a mite of soy sauce; our antennae elevated. We announced this the best soy sauce ever. Our captain, responding to our query, tells us it is aged twenty-five years. He brings an unopened bottle to our table. the label says: 'Jansal Valley Soy Sauce, 14 month barrel-aged.' It also says: 'Imported (from Japan) exclusively for Sid Wainer & Sons in New Bedford MA 02746.' Weeks later and many telephone calls to the importer, we finally get a bottle. This Asian product in an Italian restaurant inspires. Read about our taste testing of aged soy sauces, Japanese and Chinese, and out visit to this New Bedford MA supplier. You may want to go there, too.

Ours is a multi-cultural food society, all segments offer learning experiences. Eyes, ears, and taste buds, when on alert, can find great products no matter the venue. We did not believe the twenty-five year hype nor what it said on the bottle, which was ‘Handpicked from the World’s finest Farms' but did believe our taste buds. After cooking with it, we can advise that it is the best dipping soy sauce ever, and it should be reserved only for that. It was less than best, really just ordinary, when used in stir-fry dishes. This soy sauce is mature, mellow, and magnificent, straight from the bottle.

IN WASHINGTON D.C. is the place to capitalize on good Chinese food. Take the Metro or the fast lane and head straight to Chinatown. Though hardly what it used to be, there are about a dozen Chinese eateries left, and one is a shining star, most of the others are 'has-beens.' We recommend neither the prettiest nor the seediest. It is the food that counts, so follow in our footsteps and savor some.

CHINATOWN EXPRESS RESTAURANT at 744-747 6th Street NW; Washington D.C.; phone: (202) 638-0424 is neither new nor neglected. This restaurant is discovered in a listing of one hundred restaurants of all cuisines as a place where you can eat very well without spending a lot of money. This Chinese choice was the only Chinese one listed in what once was a bustling Chinatown and now is but a shell of itself. New construction looms and booms half a block away around the MCI, D.C.’s athletic and concert center.

This in-town arena hotspot has changed the area. Few Chinese eateries remain. You can get fresh or previously frozen fish at Legal Seafoods, but it is not Chinese. You can read Chinese signs and purchase things at a CVS Pharmacy, but nothing Chinese is sold there. Getting good Chinese veges is as big a challenge as finding a fine Chinese meal. Even looking for a Chinese cookbook is close to impossible except in one place, upstairs from the only decent Chinese supermarket. The food selections are passable, the book choices abysmal.

The tiny two-room take-out, eat in, and stand outside and stare is the restaurant we suggest. In the window, a la mien master is almost always working. He, or his female substitute who is half his age and already almost as good, make pulled noodles in the front window. Passers by can be with eyes glued on Mr. Yuan Chun Guang, the restaurant’s executive chef and chief noodle honcho.

Enter and order them and be treated to fantastic freshly pulled boiled noodles, and other fine dishes. Most who eat in or take it out have at least one order of them boiled, or fried and fixed with beef, chicken, or seafood, or put into a dish simply called: Noodle in Soup. We had them all three ways and could not get enough of them.

At lunchtime the line for Express Meals Over Rice fills the entryway. Construction workers, office folk, and all ages and types line up to order Fried Pork Chop, Shrimp with Mixed Vegetable, or any of the several made fresh daily selections. They are made in small batches and frequently replenished. Orders are filled quickly, this really is an express place for these cooked foods. Some hang around wishing the service was slower as they can not take their eyes off the stretching of the noodles.

A little more time allows selecting from a wider number of items. To do so you need to ask those waiting to order their take-out to move aside. Walk past and make selections. They and the take-out are big bargains. They are big on flavor and fine examples of good Chinese food. Liu Shing, the owner, fills take-out orders and mans the phones at lunch. He packs known customer favorites, and advises and helps at dinnertime. When not there, he is at Golden Horse Tour, his nearby travel business at 507 H Street NW (202/628-0881).

Those who watch the noodle stretching show, notice the gorgeous roast meats overhead. We do and order a medium-size BBQ Mixed Tray one evening. It comes with many pieces of four different meats and includes roast pig, roast duck, roast pork, and soya chicken. It arrives on a large platter garnished with slices of squid. Generously, it feeds five of us with lots of leftovers. We have a double order of Dumplings. We request half of the ten filled with leek, the rest with seafood. We have another order boiled, the first one comes as big delicious pot stickers. Both come with small saucers of divine dipping sauces; we fall for the one that has ginger minced with scallions, garlic, and hot peppers.

We do not order from the family dinner selections. Feel they are more for the chow mein crowd than for serious Chinese food lovers. A bilingual menu on the wall has the same choices as do the printed menus; that makes everyone feel comfortable. We try the Eggplant Casserole and love it, devour the Sauteed Green Leaf with Garlic Sauce, and manage to eat every bit of the House Special Chicken. That succulent bird is as good as it gets.

Lamb Hot Pot is good, too. It is a casserole of Pigs Belly with Preserved Mustard Green. The Yang Chow Fried Rice is wonderful as is the Crispy Bean Curd with Ginger and Scallions, the Fried Soft-shelled Crabs are, too. Only one dish disappoints, the Steamed Salted Yellow Fish. Like its name said, it is too salty.

Every time we eat here, we have great noodle dishes. The dumplings are terrific but look like the devastation that is Chinatown. The dough is thick and looks lumpy. It is not, they are exceptionally tender, their insides juicy and tasty. Like the pulled noodles, they are made to order and with lots of love.

Keep in mind that this Chinatown Express has more than just stretched noodles. Enjoy them and the Cantonese dishes, be they pork or poultry, or soup or scallops. Stretch your wallet and eat great Chinese food here.

IN SINGAPORE, an exciting multicultural city of four and a half million folk for whom food is a passion, there are probably more Chinese restaurants per person than most other modern cities. How does one choose where to eat? This requires friends, perusing one of the city’s fine food magazines, or just walking in to any eatery to take a look, and if you like what you see, settle in.

We found it useless to check out web sites, every one we try is out of date or inadequate. Likewise is visiting the Singapore Tourist Board. Their food brochures are one to two years old; even their hotel information needs e-mail or postage for clarification. Quickly we learn that Chinese food comes in every provincial taste. Then there is Singapore's home-grown cuisine called Nonya. it is the food of female descendants of Malay women who married Chinese traders. We find it mostly Chinese with Malay spices. Though also called Peranakan food, remembering Nonya is enough. Read Flavor and Fortune’s previous issues; the one about Singapore is in Volume 8(2)on pages 11 4hough 14, and the review of a five-star restaurant there is in Volume 9(2) on pages 5 and 8. At the airport purchase the most current Wine & Dine Annual and be ready for the tough choices. Short on Singapore's traditional coffee shops, this book is a real help even though it only has one, whose very name means coffee shop. It is KOPI TIAM at 2 Stamford Road--Level two; phone: 431-6221. The book never advises of this translation. Besides java, their signature dish is Laksa. Better than their coffee or tea this is a steaming Nonya soup with rice noodles, shrimp, fish cakes, broth, and more. Other than this fantastic dish, try the local pink drink, Bandung, and do have Durian Chendol for dessert. There are dozens upon dozens of other coffee shops, none in the book.

TONG AN at 36 Keong Saik Road is one we like. It is opposite the Royal Peacock Hotel. They are so busy that their hectic state and our indulging ourselves may be why we forget to record their telephone number. Coffee is local style there and at other places; it comes with sugar and condensed milk. If that is not your style, order what is, and do order Tea with Egg Jam. No fruit dish this, it is custard made with eggs, sugar, and coconut milk intended to top your toast, as does butter.

Not all food in Singapore is what it you would expect. Fried Carrot Cake, called Chye Tau Kwei, is made with daikon radish and rice flour and steamed. Then it is cooled, sliced, and fried with garlic and egg. If that were not enough, it is finally covered with a sweet secret sauce; a secret we could not even guess.

Popular at breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and available at all Hawker Centers is Hokkien Mee. Made with soft yellow wheat noodles, this is a dish we could not get enough of. The Newton Circus Food Centre at Scotts Road is probably the most famous one but folks go to different ones to indulge in special dishes. There is a book and a website to help; the latter is: www.makansutra.com and the book is called Makansutra. If you plan to spend a couple of weeks, buy one. If not, use a computer or visit a bookstore and give yourself half an hour with paper and pencil.

There are good non-food things to do in Singapore. Visit Sentosa, their island resort, and by all means go on the Night Safari. This animal park opens very late, near eleven at night, and it is a must. One landmark worth missing is the Haw Par Villa. This so-called historical theme park is a daytime place in need of plaster, paint, and people. Better to enjoy the Thian Hock Keng Temple and the Asian Civilizations Museum, and of course, wander in the shophouse area that is Chinatown. Prime real estate now, some shophouses are converted to small hotels, and we stay in one aptly called The Chinatown Hotel.

BLUE GINGER at 27 Tanjong Pagar Road; Singapore; phone: 222-3928 is a short walk from our hotel. It is also in a restored shophouse, and a restaurant on multiple floors, the upper ones for parties. Decor is simple, paintings are by a local artists, it has old-fashioned hanging lights and interesting carved wooden panels. It used to be impossible to dine on any Nonya food as most was only cooked in homes. This has changed and there are now places to eat Nonya in restaurants. Andrew Lian is one of many Blue Ginger owners. He is a family member of a well-known Nonya cookbook author, a Mrs. Leong, and Andrew’s mom created the menu at Blue Ginger.

Make a reservation and try the chicken braised with turmeric, lemon grass and the local black nut called buah keluak. Called Ayam Buah Keluak, this terrific dish comes with three nuts to feed three folk. Do as we did and pay extra, so that everyone can have one or two. The nut is from Indonesia and needs to cook for a long time. You need a small spoon to extricate its soft interior digging it out from one of the holes chopped in it; they provide it. Buah keluak is why the sauce is dark and delicious, Some years back, Gourmet Magazine, actually in October 1996, featured several Blue Ginger recipes. Seek them out, that’s a lot easier than getting to Singapore.

NONYA AND BABA at 01-05--275 Thompson Road;Singapore; phone: 254-8373 is another place to eat Nonya food. Order Lemak Puteh, a wonderful coconut-based soup loaded with chili, if you’re not faint at heart. Went there alone at lunch because a friend advised the food as 'too hot for my traveling companion.' How right she was. Loved their Hati Babi Bungkus, or fried pork liver dumplings. It’s a cholesterol high to be lowered by the Black Rice Pudding called Pulot Hitam.

LING ZHI are two same name vegetarian restaurants on Singapore's Orchard Road, the 'shop til you drop' street. Both are called LING ZHI with one at 541 Orchard Road; phone: 734-3788; it is in the Lait Towers building. The other LING ZHI is at 400 Orchard Road; phone: 734-3788, virtually across the street. Both have great food and great paintings, too. These eateries earned the title "Best Restaurant" in Singapore.

American restauranteurs should take heed, vegetarian food can be gorgeous and great, with lots of bang for the buck. Four of us ate too much for less than half the cost of a fine meal in any city in the world. The Braised Spinach Soup with Bamboo Fungus and Black Moss comes steamed, piping hot, and in individual bamboo cups, a stick of bamboo fungus protrudes. This heavenly starter has golden mushrooms, cellophane noodles, and crunchy bamboo mushrooms in it. Crisp Fried Vegetarian Eel came with red and green cellophane noodles. While this eel never saw water, its double roll of crispy seaweed and sheets of tofu did swim into our hearts.

The Sauteed Honshimeija Mushrooms with Asparagus, Capsicum, and Macadamia Nuts came piled high in a crispy yam basket. They were gorgeous to see and delicious to devour. The fungi in the Mushroom with Capsicum and Dried Chili dish sounded similar, but was not. The taste of its pom pom or monkey head mushrooms, hot peppers, and celtuce was multi-textured and mildly flavored. Braised Royal Bird’s Nest with Shark’s Fin Melon and the Hot and Sour Carrot Bisque were tastes in contrast, no shark denied an existence. Eggplant with Mashed Bean Curd was braised in a spicy sauce.

We all finished every drop of it and the Mushroom, Gluten, and Water Chestnuts on Skewers that come with Satay Sauce. Their Stewed Bitter Gourd with Shiitake Mushrooms takes bitter melon to new heights with forest mushrooms flower cut and circling the best treatment of bitter melon ever. End your meal with Fried E-Fu Noodles with Three Kinds of Mushrooms. a divine pile of hand-pulled soft succulent noodles, their sauce is savory. They and every dish at either Ling Zhi are shown on a color menu. The good-looking photographs tempt you to try lots of their good food. CAFE LUNA at 405 Havelock Road; phone: 733-2021 is the place to go if eating requires too much menu selecting. It is on the second floor of Singapore's Nova Hotel. Their one finds orchids on each table before heading for their equally appealing food. We went during Singapore month, which is in November when they dish up senior prices that are fifty-five percent of the ususal tab.

This buffet had two soups, one better than the other, and cold tables laden with Western and Eastern dishes. Some have Roasted Chicken, Peking Duck, and other meats. The two dozen hot dishes come with chefs dishing them out and detailing contents and cooking techniques. A very long dessert table groans with caloric indulgences. Most hot foods are Chinese or Nonya, most desserts are Western with a few Chinese and Singaporean sweets mixed in. Many hotels do buffets at lunch, none we have are this good. The only problem is going out for dinner that night.

                                                                                                                                                       
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