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On Menus: In New York

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the USA

Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 13 and 31

Wonderful Chef, is just what Chef Wang Lee is. We did not give him that name nor ascribe that name to him. Those sponsoring his restaurant in Flushing did because they believe him a wonderful chef. So Wonderful Chef, his restaurant in Queens became and is. Family, friends, and his financial supporters knew that. They helped him name that restaurant. This gentleman, and he is a gentle man, is not only a fine chef, but also creative and talented.

At A & B Lobster King House, he has now made a foray into Manhattan’s Chinatown. Here, he teamed up with Mr. Liang Bin Fin who owns a classic Chinese supermarket at 165 Grand Street; New York, NY 10013; phone: (212) 431-8999, just a few blocks from Chinatown. They make a phenomenal team! Their A & B LOBSTER KING HOUSE; 1 Mott Street; NY, NY 10013; phone: (212) 566-0930, is a resturant that should not be missed. It is on the corner of Chatham Square.

Look in its windows and see lovely pink-covered tablecloths. They are always blessed with customers during the noon meal. Then, you may have to wait for a table. Try the food at dinner, then it dives into greatness. Then, there is less pressure on the kitchen or the front of the house, and tables are more readily available. That is when to enjoy eating at this two-level restaurant, its party room downstairs. We did have some lunch-time dim sum at A & B, and while that was very good, we learned that food is even better here in the evening.

Mr. Lee hails from Hong Kong and his food features dishes critically acclaimed there. A & B is closer to home and less expensive, so skip a boat or plane ride and head for Chatham Square. Hong Kong has been featuring Japanese-style mayonnaise on dishes for quite some time, several years we think. We know that their mayonnaise is sweeter and thinner. We also know it is not authentically Chinese. But they often use it on a first course salad, and we did enjoy one at this restaurant and can understand why it is so popular in Hong Kong. The A & B Lobster Salad comes on a huge platter with two whole but empty lobster shells standing at attention. They are hugging a glass of real live gold fish. That creativity is not meant to be consumed, just there to delight. And we are because the salad of delicious fresh fruit and some lobster meat is great. What a fine way to cross the ocean and enjoy a popular dish from Hong Kong.

We follow that with Rattlesnake Soup. As I consume mine, I realize this is even better than what China’s two Snake Restaurants serve. They are, one in Guangzhou, another in Shenzhen. Surely that is another reason not to cross the ocean now. This unusual but very Hong Kong-ese dish comes as it should but rarely does. There is a side dish with freshly fried strips of wonton wrappers and a batch of chrysanthemum petals. Putting them into a bowl of rattlesnake soup makes for contrast in texture and flavor. We adore that soup!

One Chinese gentleman who grew up in Japan was hesitant to eat his. Assured, when everyone said that rattlesnake tastes like chicken, and that there is some chicken in the tureen, he forges ahead. Clearly his taking a chance has its own reward. He has a second bowlful and enjoys that, too. His mother-in-law and his wife, both Chinese, need no encouragement. Nor do the four other Chinese people at our table. Because we always adore snake dishes, we eat more than our share. We will head back soon for more.

Buddha’s Delight comes next, and we immediately understand the value of Mr. Lee’s partner. This is a mushroom dish ‘par excellance’ that comes with an outside circle of the best bamboo fungus we have ever tasted. These almost pristine white long lacy mushrooms circle a huge pile of different mushrooms that no one at our table can identify. They are brown, look like squishy pieces of browned cauliflower, and are certainly delightful. Tasting them is akin to making a special trip to heaven. Everyone at our table plans a trip, not to Hong Kong, but to that supermarket the next time in Manhattan.

Crispy Chicken with Dry Garlic and Scallions follow. The chicken is juicy, beautifully lacquered and crisp as its name implies. After that comes Steamed Bass with Ginger Scallion Sauce. For sure that fish was swimming in one of the tanks downstairs, that we see on a TV monitor, less than half an hour earlier. It is fresh and succulent, and not a second over-cooked. We have a ninety-four-year-old uncle who adores sea bass. Thought of him as I polish it off and vow to take him here by cab next week. The taste of the fish is just what he has been dreaming about. I know that because we eat together many times at Chinese restaurants. He needs to come to this one because he is tired of asking for sea bass and getting tilapia. He knows the difference. This Uncle Jack introduced us to fine Chinese food. Getting him some fine sea bass would be a small token of our thanks.

The next to last dish is Sauteed Thai Noodles, or Pad Thai. Though good, it does not rank high on our collective lists. But what follows surely does. It is a Mango Pudding made in large and small fish molds. Each one glistens with two black sesame eyes that manage to stare back at us. The pudding is good, the mango both fresh and from a package. Had we not been taking it apart carefully for this review, doubt that we would have seen that. But we did not need to see anything to savor its taste.

This restaurant was reviewed by someone from the New York Daily News. That review serves as an indicator of why westerners can not believe Chinese restaurant reviews and have trouble finding good Chinese food. We quote her foolishness: “I am now convinced Chinese take-out containers are lined with secret seasoning since those same bland leftovers I brought home were absolutely delicious a few hours later.” Does she really mean that or is her task to write good amusing copy?

We would like to reinforce what she says in another paragraph. She advises that “the most rewarding way to eat here is to pick your way through the a la carte menu which offers such dishes as...” and she names several of them. We get the sense that she does not try any or all of them. If she and other reviewers order prearranged menu bargains, French, Chinese, or any other, clearly the food received is not the same top quality most chefs offer. It is not intended to be; a bargain is a bargain, no better and maybe worse. Special dishes cost more because they are better.

Anyone who expects great food at $99.00 for a ten-course banquet feast deserves what they get. Why people go to Chinese restaurants and bristle at the inexpensive food they order is something we cannot fathom. Would they expect more or less in a French or in an Italian eatery?

Restaurant reviewers in this and other cities, call when in town; you need an education! We can help you taste great affordable Chinese food. We did that with someone at the same newspaper. She quickly saw the difference; but she was eating something she might not have ordered, Hunan Ham. Her superb lunch cost only twenty-five dollars a person. People order poorly in Chinese restaurants and they get the poor items they select. Do not allow that to happen with this wonderful chef.

Readers, Wang Lee is a wonderful chef; also a business man who needs to feed his family. Let him feed yours with great Chinese food and both of you will not be disappointed.

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