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Joseph Poon: The Closing of his Restaurant

by Harley Spiller

People

Spring Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(1) page(s): 29, 30, and 31


For the first time in twenty-six years, Joseph Poon is no longer at the helm of a Chinese Philadelphia restaurant. In 1979, he started the legendary Sang Kee. It is still there. He followed in 1984 with the highly-touted Joe’s Peking Duck House. Then, Joseph Poon Asian Fusion restaurant opened in 1997. Unfortunately, the lease ran out last September 2005. Joe swung the doors shut ceremoniously with a series of farewell banquets. Bamboo Glazed Grilled Chicken Roasted on Soy Bean Spring Mixed Salad with Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette anyone? How about Spicy Tangy Duck Foie Gras Seaweed Summer Roll? Breath-taking menu entries like these embody the signature style of the breathless chef, Joe Poon. The complexity of such dishes is at the core of this 21st-century master restaurateur and his frenetic and utter zest for life.

I had the opportunity to meet and dine with Joe two times before the closing. I started by asking how long he had been running the current restaurant? He fired back quickly, "eight years, seven months, four weeks, five days, ten minutes.…" He had me laughing too hard to hear how many seconds.

Joe loves having fun. He truly enjoys personalizing meals for individuals and he is always got an honest gimmick, a twist, something special to make you happy. Elaine Tait put it well in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Everything…seems designed to bring smiles."

He loves creating dishes and he loves writing menus. Sometimes his entrees even rhyme, such as Kung Po Escargot in Phyllo Dough, or Scallops Sauced with XO Merlot. Sometimes his descriptions just plain make you salivate, like Black Peppercorn Burgundy Essence or Fresh Ginger Sauce with Chinese Chives and Chardonnay.

Joe must have a little of the legendary New England Chinese restaurateur Joyce Chen in him. As early as the 1960's her pioneering menus announced that they were happy to accommodate special dietary or religious restrictions. In the 1990's, she was among the first to use the heart-friendly symbol. Joe places similar high priority on customer service. His menu proudly proclaimed: My kitchen is open and my mind is open too. The turn of the century saw Poon going whole hog for Asian fusion, pairing things like Chinese five-spice powder with Italian Asiago cheese. He created other radical ideas, using fresh Chinese wolfberries in salads wisely helping reticent patrons. He gave them the appealing nickname of 'red capers.'

Joe's modern ideas are backed by traditional Chinese beliefs. He will tell you that the red capers, gou ji zi, are good for eyesight, skin, and the liver. You can learn more about these red items in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 12(2) on pages 35. 36, and 38. His tea list also makes health suggestions, including which one to drink for building up energy (yellow ginseng) or improving eyesight (white chrysanthemum).

Poon revels, in regal compositions like his Crème Fraiche Lobster Almond Tart, a title for tref titillating enough to tempt a Rabbi. The exciting combination of flavors makes me want to jump on the bus to Philly and ask Joe to prepare a wild dish, the Qing Dynasty Fujianese Bhudda Jumps Over the Wall. This classic celebratory stew can consist of cured chicken, duck, mutton leg, and pork tripe cooked in a Xiaojiang wine crock for long hours over a low charcoal fire. That’s not all though, shark fin, abalone, dried scallops, ham, mushroom, bamboo shoots, turnip, stock, sea cucumber, pork tendons, and fish maw are all added in due time. There is even a traditional garnish, boiled pigeon eggs. Named for its scent, which lured a Buddha over his vegetarian monastery wall, the ridiculously-rich sounding creation is also known as Consummation of Happiness and Longevity.

A classified ad for Joe might read 'Chinese man seeks hungry food lovers for ten thousand and one reasons.' It does not seem like he spends much time at his home in Pennsauken Township across the river in New Jersey. Whether it is appearing on Leno or helping out at a charity event, Joe is forever on the go. He made watermelon carving movies for www.watermelon.org and he runs his own website www.josephpoon.com where you can sign up for a bi-monthly newsletter. You might also want to hang onto Joe’s phone number, it is (215) 928-9333.

Chef Poon's training began as a teen. That was in airline food service in Hong Kong. When he got to Philadelphia in the late 1960's he had eight bucks in his pocket. There, he worked as many as three jobs at a time until he took a Bachelors degree in nutrition at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York. The year was 1978. Recently, he endowed a scholarship travel fund there. He also studied at the Culinary Institute of America.

Even though he is not currently running a restaurant, Joe’s calendar is booked solid. He works with Philadelphia schools to help students earn high school certificates in restaurant work. Inner city kids get real-life experience and graduates are given once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to travel with Joe to Hong Kong’s Lantau Island for a thousand dollar-a-head seafood feast. Joe pays for everything out of his own pocket and says it’s worth every penny to give the next generation a taste out of some of the world’s finest woks. Then they’ll know firsthand how spectacular Chinese food can be.

Joe also offers a wide range of adult cooking classes. One is all about lobster. Another teaches how to make five dishes from a single chicken. His recent cookbook, Life is Short...Cooking is Fun was reviewed in this magazine’s Volume 12(4) on page 19. The cookbook includes those recipes for lobster and chicken. Poon leads 'Wok n Walk' eating and culture tours of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Diehards can sign up for his overseas culinary vacations; the next one is ten days in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Xian and Beijing. It includes classes at the Dickerson Catering Institute and a visit behind-the-scenes to the Beijing Duck Restaurant. Like everything with Joe, the journey is a fair and square deal -- $3,890, all inclusive.

When Joe tells a story, you better hang onto your chair because stats come fast and furious. Even if the facts do not quite register, Joe’s indomitable spirit will. One of his favorite stories is of the time he ran a gigantic banquet that took three days and one hundred and fifty other chefs to prepare. It was so intense Joe slept on the kitchen floor. You get the idea, he never needs much sleep.

Out at a charity event, Joe's forever on the go. He made watermelon carving movies for www.watermelon.org and runs his own website, www.josephpoon.com , where you can sign up for a bi-monthly newsletter.The turn of the century saw Poon going whole hog for Asian fusion, pairing things like Chinese five-spice powder with Italian Asiago cheese. He created other radical ideas, using fresh Chinese wolfberries in salads wisely helping reticent patrons. He gave them the appealing nickname of ‘red capers.’

Joe’s modern ideas are backed by traditional Chinese beliefs. He’ll tell you that the red capers, gou ji zi, are good for eyesight, skin, and the liver. You can learn more about these red items in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 12(2) on pages 35-36 and 38. His tea list also makes health suggestions, including which one to drink for building up energy (yellow ginseng) or improving eyesight (white chrysanthemum).

Joe grips the wok like a bronco buster's lariat. He is quick to point out that French restaurant stoves use fifty thousand BTU's of firepower while Chinese kitchens produce heat sixteen times hotter, at eight hundred thousand BTU's. He literally dances and pounds food into the wok. Forget General Tso's legendary dish, Poon has taken over and renamed it General Joe's Chicken. When he is in an Italian mood, he brazenly braises wild mushrooms and calls himself General Ciao. Joe's energetic and physical style in and out of the kitchen recalls Muhammad Ali in his heyday – maybe we should call him the 'Wok Boxer.'

There is no denying Joe is an expert chef and restaurateur. He is very astute at analyzing the changing tastes of his clientele. He prepares dishes in different ways to accommodate everyone, from youngsters to the health-conscious to omnivorous food professionals. Of course there is plenty of white meat chicken on his menu but he also stocks ostrich, venison, and other less common fodder. After all, there are some customers who find the only enjoyable thing about chicken breast is the chance to scare timid eaters by exclaiming, 'mmm, tastes just like frog.'

It was great to see table after table of hefty Philadelphians 'chow down a-mighty' on Poon's Peking duck, washing back their big American bites with sugary soda pop. Joe is happy to cater to them, but prefers the Chinese diet of 'veggies and fish.' He admits, "I feel sorry for Americans with their hamburger and coca cola heart attacks."

Joseph Poon Asian Fusion Restaurant beckoned diners with a painterly sign featuring a Chinese character qing which Joe translates as 'clear, fresh and light, the simple elegance of refined taste.' A long glass hallway lined with children’s letters of thanks and drawings of Chinese food welcomed diners to Joe’s 'world of one hundred tastes.'

Chances are you were greeted by Jenny, an ego-free manager with great people skills. She truly made you feel at home so it was not a big surprise to learn she is Joe’s adopted daughter.

Regulars will miss her welcome desk, groaning under the weight of dozens of menus, mints, magnets, toothpicks, postcards, flyers for Joe’s projects, and display samples of Chinese herbs. There are even business cards for the new venture of one of his waiters, Jan Chen’s Green Grass Asian Trading at 906 Arch Street. Joe takes care of his people.

Joseph Poon Asian Fusion Restaurant was designed to resemble a Singaporean hawker market with open kitchens, brightly-painted exposed pipes, and lots of ceiling fans. Food-related knick-knacks are everywhere. You can read books, like the one about a complete French regional meal cooked sixty-five meters above land in an airship. You can also leaf thru dozens of international menus pinned to the wall.

Local eateries represented in Joe's menu collection include Hong Kong Jack's in Yardley as well as Joe’s own defunct duck diner. Eateries further afield include Manhattan’s Ecco-La and now-defunct original basement Sweet & Tart Café, the Hula Grill in Hawaii, and Arun Thai in Chicago. There is even a Hilton Hotel room service menu.

An eighty's-looking leather menu from the Brass Pelican in Naples, Florida was fun to peruse but only offered one nod to the East, its Oriental Dumplings. My favorite menu is from Garlic Jo’s Bistro in Tokyo; it specialists in giant cloves of garlic from the famous Tagomachi region and offers an anchovy and garlic combo called 'Vampire Killer.' It is part of a chain of fusion restaurants with family-style portions-recommended for sharing Chinese food restaurant style. For fun, and it is fun, check their website at www.americanhouse.co.jp

Joe's décor was anchored by a wall filled with trophies, awards, and framed preserved foods. There were dried fruits, mushrooms and Chinese groceries you might expect, but flanked by ingredients for pasta fagiole, white-chocolate covered pretzels, and Passover matzoh. Joe aims to please everybody. When asked to order for our party of four, the boss sent a flurry of appetizers, mains, and deserts, four each. We snarfed Satay Salmon and Peking Duck Pizza, Pan-fried Noodles, and Asian Seafood Curry, Joe’s riff on risotto. There was more, but everyone’s favorite was Steamed Ginger- and-Scallion Sea Bass, as tender and puffy as handmade tofu. We also enjoyed Joe’s fun deserts with a variety of sweet and fruity tastes, each adorned with clever chocolate-syrup drawings of cavorting monkeys, pigs, and dragons.

I made plans to return once more before the closing, this time with Jacqueline Newman, editor of this magazine, and two friends. Joe can not say no to being a good samaritan. He was running late for our reservation. Still, he checked in by cell phone from Jersey to tell the chefs how to tailor the dishes (add more demiglace, wine, etc.). He called again while driving across the Delaware, approving our request for half-sized portions.

We started with an uncommonly well-balanced Hot-and-Sour Soup with white, not red pepper. Happily the Sea Bass was every bit as good as the first time, and the Peking Duck was greaseless and lovely. The righteous French-Chinese mix of Steak and Black Pepper was long gone, and we were just scraping up the last bits of 'Wok Fried Merlot Mushroom and Haricot Verts' when Joe burst in.

After speedy introductions, Poon sized up our appetites and dashed to a nearby market, returning moments later with live fish, mussels, and crabs. 'Half-portions be damned' he must have thought, and within minutes we were face to face with three giant family-sized platters. Tilapia was prepared two ways. The flanks had been steamed over zucchini and other vegetables. The extremities had been fried so you could eat them bones and all like so many potato chips. We did. The Crabs with Cantonese Lobster Sauce was succulent and salty. It was easy to eat the tiny sweet mussels he made with accompanying rice topped with flying-fish roe.

Having stuffed us to the gills, Joe joined us for some serious food talk. I learned that no one, not even an owner, should ever disrespect a head chef by touching his wok. Your editor asked 'What’s your favorite food?' and smiled when he replied 'noodles.' "All Chinese chefs say the same thing," she said. We complimented Joe on his duck and he shared some critical factors: proper bleeding; boiling for at least seven minutes followed by a cold-water shock, then hanging them upright to dry, then roast.

Next, in about five minutes, Joe showed us how to cut a watermelon into a variety of fantastic shapes, explaining that Chinese believe fruit carving brings luck and prosperity, especially for weddings. We enjoyed the fresh fruit while he hustled together components for making Dragon’s Beard, a Chinese sweet. Once I saw an elderly Chinese man draw a crowd by making this pure-white stringy candy on a Chatham Square sidewalk. A tiny shop in Montreal sells it, as do several malls in Toronto and Richmond, both in Canada. But not many still make this old-fashioned treat, and a true treat it is.

Joe set to making the candy right on our table. Earlier he had combined corn syrup, maltose, and water to make a hard yellow disk. He proceeded to roll this disk in corn starch, "If you like to eat you learn everyday" he said, spouting yet another of his ceaseless sound bites. Slowly the mass changed consistency. Soon it looked like noodles being made, each deft twist of Joe’s hands bringing more strands. He shouted out "2000, 4000, 8000, 10,000" as he counted the growing number of whiskers. He then bundled the wispy bales around a grape and handed them out. They were not too sweet, the dominant flavor was cooling grape juice. Joe also stuffs the Dragon’s Beards with strawberries, and kiwis, exciting alternatives to the traditional filling of chopped coconut, sesame and peanut.

Joe glanced at his watch and bid a quick adieu. Just as fast as he had come, he was gone. We were left fully sated but wondering when he would next appear in our lives. Joe says he has a strong desire to teach and wants to open a cooking school for all Asian cuisines. He is ready to give up restaurant work for now, but hopes to keep his hand on the wok by cooking for important events and people.

It is hard to stop talking about Joe, but this article has to end somehow. He is a better closer than I, so I will bid adieu with some delicious words he strung together to send people off on sweet journeys into the night. They include: "Lowfat Wok-toasted Sesame Seed Oreo Cheesecake with Fresh Fruit & Mango Coulis."

NOW FOR A PHILLY UPDATE:
Pennsylvania's premier city is changing for the better. Decrepit bars have been spruced up and serve wild boar and cask ale where boiled eggs and Schmidt's once held sway. Not content to rest in the shadows of Gotham, Philadelphians have long had a tendency to develop epicurean niches. Locals display a penchant for working class specialties like Italian sandwiches, Germanic soft pretzels, and Belgian ale.

When I reported on Philly in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 12(1) on pages 11 and 12, I could not account for Peking Duck being all the rage in the capital city. Now I know. When Joe Poon arrived from China he took a good long look at what the locals were eating. He then decided that Peking Duck was the most likely Chinese dish to succeed as a Philly niche specialty. So he set to work adjusting luxurious 'quacker' recipes to American tastes. Recast in his inimitable style, Joe’s duck dishes quickly drew lip-smacking aficionados all across the City of Brotherly Love.

Also, the dim sum palace I mentioned changed hands on July 17th. Now called NEW GOLDEN PALACE, still at 801-2 Washington Avenue: phone: (215) 627-2889, the dim sum is A-OK for the basics, har kow, foong jow, and pai guat. New Vietnamese and Chinese owners have added a small list of Vietnamese standards.

Philly-bred Adam Buckman alerted me to a gap in my first article, the popular fourteen-year old MUSTARD GREENS CONTEMPORARY CHINESE CUISINE at 622 South 2nd Street, between South and Bainbridge; phone: (215) 627-0833. This 'under the radar' local hotspot offers only fifty-two refined dishes for their knowledgeable clients. Like Bruce Ho (see Flavor and Fortune>/i>'s Volume 9(4) on pages 11 and 12, place knows busy people do not want too many choices.

Space 1026 and other funky art spaces are opening in Chinatown. Industrial neighborhoods like the Northern Liberties have transformed, Soho-like, into fashionable residential districts. So keep your eyes open because just as Philly is transforming into a hipper city, so too will Joe Poon emerge from his chrysalis with new and tantalizing ventures,
_____
Thanks to Micki Watanabe, the Adachis, Mark Schneider, Irene Levy Baker, Jackie Newman, and Bianca Brown. And, like Joe Poon, I also teach and recently presented a ten-visit food course at P.S. 2 in Morrisania, The Bronx. Here, elementary school kids learn firsthand how to identify the basic tastes, salty, sweet, sour and bitter. They have their first taste of Mexican hot pepper candy, a Chinese dumpling party, and lots more. Please visit this kids' website at InspectorCollector.com to learn more about the class and me.

                                                                                                                                                       
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