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There Is No Place Like Home
Spring Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(1) page(s): 9 and 10
When I was growing up in Chicago's Chinatown, there were rarely any good Chinese restaurants outside of our community. Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai were non-existent. Chicago was then known as a meat and potato town, with Germanic roots for its culinary heritage. Although there was an occasional classic French or a semblance of Italian, by and large, it was a gastronomic desert.
In the last forty years, an earthquake of social, cultural and ethnic proportion has changed the face of dining in Chicago. I was curious to find out how these changes influenced or affected Asian cooking. I was amazed at how many Japanese and Japanese inspired restaurants there were. Even more startling was a fantastic meal enjoyed at Charlie Trotter's. He is, of course, one of America's top chefs, and the best in Chicago.
Trotter’s tasting menu (the only one available) was rather like a classic Japanese kaiseki meal--a traditional, multi-course dinner usually served in a ryokan or country inn in Japan. Here tiny tasting portions of cha soba were served with thin slices of sweet Asian pear, smoky grilled shiitake mushrooms were paired with a pungent ponzu sauce and monkfish liver matched with yuzu granite was akin to a foie gras dish juxtaposed with a sharp tart flavor to cut the richness. The Easter egg radish with preserved carrots tasted like a dish from a Buddhist temple but tastier. The meal continued with tastes, textures and flavors dancing on my palate all evening.
Everyone in town seemed to be talking about Calvin Soh, the new chef at Shanghai Terrace. In his mid-twenties, Calvin worked for some of the best hotels in Singapore. On a Monday evening, the restaurant was packed. His Five-spice Squab was outstanding with flavors bursting through every bite. Calvin's Herbal Chicken Soup looked like clear tea but was as tasty as anything my mother would have made. His Aomori Abalone was the most Chinese of all his dishes, very tender, almost melting with a light glaze of oyster sauce.
When I thought this Soh meal could not get any better, he served a fantastic Sichuan Rack of Lamb cooked perfectly with a combination of spicy fermented black beans and dried chillies infusing the tender lamb with haunting aromas. The meal was so good I returned the next day for lunch.
Weather permitting, ask to be seated on the terrace outside. In the warm glorious sun, I had classic Shanghai Dumplings that were tastier and juicier than the usual variety. Another well chosen dish was Ahi Tuna Yu Sheng which was a refreshing salad with slices of the freshest tuna tossed with pickled papaya salad, peanuts, bits of tart tangerine, and spicy candied ginger all tossed with a sour plum dressing and what seemed to be a squeeze of lime juice. But it was Calvin’s Singapore Fried Noodles that betrayed his culinary roots and great Singapore street food. This was comfort food at its best in the hands of a skilled passionate chef. It was worth the return visit.
I discovered Vietnamese cuisine when I first traveled to southeast Asia, something I never experienced in Chicago. Since the end of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese immigrants have opened restaurants throughout the Chicago area including Chinatown. Le Colonial located in the trendy part of town was a brilliant discovery. With louvered shutters and rotating ceiling fans that evoke Vietnam's colonial past, it is decorated with superb taste. Despite the heaving bar on the second floor, the food is just plain good. Start with classic Goi Cuon which is tiny rice paper wrapped spring rolls with prawns, pork and rice noodles, to be devoured with springs of fresh coriander and mint leaves. It came greaseless to the table so I knew there was a good Vietnamese chef in the kitchen.
Less successful was Tom Cuon Ram, wrapped parcels filled with prawns, chicken and vegetables and served with an orange ginger dipping sauce which I found a bit heavy. Ca Nuong was a sweet soy glazed piece of grilled salmon served over rice noodles with dill, young mesclun greens and subtle lime garlic sauce. Be sure to state that you want the salmon medium rare to prevent over cooking. The best dish was Bun Thit Nuong, marinated slices of moist barbecued pork on a bed of ethereal thin rice noodles. It was so addicting and delicious I could not stop eating it.
Curiosity got the better part of me and I could not resist trying Big Bowl, part of the Lettuce Entertain You group of restaurants with eight outlets, all featuring quick fast fresh Chinese and Thai food. It is a popular, buzzing restaurant with a wall of locally grown produce which you can freely choose from, put into a bowl and have stir-fried with any flavors you desire. The culinary eminence-grise behind this successful concept is the highly respected chef and cookbook author, Bruce Cost. I tried Thai Herb Calamari which was more like Italian fried squid but served with a sweet spicy lemon sauce. Both the squid and sauce were perfectly executed. Chicken Potstickers were excellent, pan fried slowly with a crispy crust and the filling quite good. Kung Pao Chicken, although not authentic in my opinion, tasted delicious nevertheless with an unusual touch of hoisin sauce which added a slight sweetness to the dish. Try their signature drink: fresh Ginger Ale which was a refreshing balance to Big Bowl's bold and robust food. I found the service friendly and efficient, and on my way out, had to see who was cooking in the open kitchen. What a surprise to find that every chef was of Mexican descent. Bruce Cost is truly a good teacher.
Returning to Chicago's Chinatown is always full of nostalgia for me. However, if I had any doubts that the food there had lost it's way, my mother quickly disproved it. We had lunch at her insistence at Emperor's Choice in the heart of Chinatown. Of course, it caters to tourists who order the usual chow mein and sweet and sour pork. But if you want authentic Chinese food, their seafood dishes are remarkable. We ordered a Pan-fried Salt and Pepper Chilean Sea Bass that was exquisite and skillfully cooked. A dish of fresh Pea Shoots Stir-fried with Garlic was so good, it would make any good Chinese kitchen proud. But the piece de resistance was a live Dungeness Crab from the West Coast, dispatched and stir-fried with ginger and spring onions in a hot wok. I watched with immense pleasure as my eighty-four year old mother diligently picked the sweet silken crab meat and ate it with pure bliss with spicy fresh ginger slices and sharp spring onions. She pronounced it rather good, indeed, giving her blessings. That is when I realized that there is no place to eat like home.
The restaurants mentioned above and their locations:
Big Bowl, 6 East Cedar Street, Chicago IL 60611; phone (312) 640-8888
Le Colonial, 937 North Rush Street, Chicago IL 60611; phone (312) 255-0088
Charlie Trotter's, 816 West Armitage Avenue, Chicago IL 60614; phone (773) 248-6288
Emperor's Choice, 2238 South Wentworth Avenue, Chicago IL 60616; phone (312) 225-8800
Shanghai Terrace at The Peninsula, 108 East Superior, Chicago Il 60611, on the 4th floor; phone (312) 573-6744
The above article was adapted from one in the Financial Times, courtesy of Ken Hom, who owns the copyright thereto.
Ken Hom’s first book about Chinese cookery techniques, touted by the New York Times, led to two television cooking series on BBC that were also later shown in many other countries. The first, in 1984, was a series called: Chinese Cookery. The next series was titled: Travels with a Hot Wok. In addition to these and many more cookbooks published abroad. Ken Hom has written more than a dozen cookbooks published in the United States. Many of them have been translated into other languages, a dozen at last count. In addition, he has written cookbooks about other Asian food cultures. Ken Hom is this magazine’s Honorary Chairperson; and the books he authored that were published in the United States are:
Asian Vegetarian Feast,
Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood,
Foolproof Chinese Cooking,
Fragrant Harbor Taste,
Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery,
Ken Hom's Quick & Easy Chinese Cookery,
Ken Hom's East Meets West Cuisine,
Ken Hom's Chinese Kitchen,
The Taste of China, and
Travels with a Hot Wok.