19 March 2009

Christmas Lunch at Dragon Well Manor

It has been overdue for me to write about my actual visit, albeit delayed, to the Dragon Well Manor. I was given the opportunity to dine there after being invited by a student to experience what it had to offer us and her colleague.

My dining experience was heavily influenced prior to our lunchdate by the New Yorker essay by Fuchsia Dunlop, which was the initial motivation for me to seek out the restaurant; otherwise, I and my fellow diners would likely never have heard of this destination restaurant. At the very least, I would not have been able to strongly hint that I wanted to pay a visit to such an establishment.

Our private room awaited us. A simple table set for three and watched over by a large print of Zhu De. The barest of table service was laid out with three bowls of amuse-gueules to stave our hunger until the meal began: dried cherry tomatoes, unsalted peanuts in the shell, and assorted rice cube candy (dou mi). I thought of coining the term, tomato raisins, which, in fact, I think I just did. Some painted tiles added color to the otherwise dark table and austerely padded chairs. Tea was immediately poured into lidded mug to help alleviate the late morning chill. There was a sideboard where the waiters would do the staging of the various courses. We strolled a bit before being seated by the head waiter and presented with a menu composed of vertical bamboo strips. My hostess and her colleague read and chatted with the waiter and I sat back and waited for what was to come. I am not certain whether my companions ordered a la carte or whether this was the menu de degustation for the day. I asked to look at a wine menu which seemed appropriate given that this meal represented Zhejiang haute cuisine. I selected a 2005 St. Emilion grand cru. The headwaiter showed me the label and then proceeded to divide the bottle into three glass pitchers. The Chinese have a certain protocol, insisting that all members drink the same amounts of alcohol. As it was, my two companions at the table offered me most of the contents of their pitchers by the end of the meal.

The first course was a bowl of warm soymilk with condiments: sugar, dried tiny pink shrimp, youtiao (chopped strips of deepfried batter), chopped pickled green chilies, soysauce, chopped green onions, a yellow pepper salsa, and unskinned peanuts. This is basically what most Han Chinese call their breakfast on any given morning: doujiang or warm soymilk. The rather bland or neutral soybean gets something to help make it palatable. And for reference, it went well with the French bordeaux.

The next wave of courses came after the first was cleared away. Normally platters come haphazardly in a Chinese restaurant. This locale was showing itself as different. To save tablespace, the kitchen served dishes on raised, footed platters. Set before us were deepfried fish soaked in vinegar, mutton sausage with fivespice powder, and pressed tofu (dofu gan) in a cloudy broth. The waiter then brought out the famed leather booklet that showed the sources of all the ingredients and the delivery times. There were photos of rustic farms and traditional animal husbandry in practice. Sadly I could only look at the photos and imagine the kind of details that were shared about the suppliers of the day’s repast.

The headwaiter then brought out a poached duck that had been simmered for four hours. After showing it to us and telling about its background, it was brought back into the kitchen to be segmented. The bowls arrived with equal portions of ginseng, steamed duck, and cicada larvae that were in the original cooking crock. I don’t think the cicadas added much of anything to the flavor. We were also served a scrambled egg dish that was mixed with lots of chives. It reminded me of the medieval tansy.

The headwaiter spent a good deal of effort in answering questions and explaining the background of the meal as I expected based on The New Yorker article. While this approach to cuisine with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients is still avant-garde in the USA, it is revolutionary in the PRC. Dare I say counterrevolutionary even? Food culture is still trying to shed the communist mantle that insisted that a chef feed simple foods for the working masses. Thinking toom much about the pleasures of food was a luxury of the old regime and a bourgeois affectation. So this restaurant has taken upon itself to engage the diner in a kind of voluntary reeducation, to rediscover flavors and to join the international slow food movement. There is already a national chapter in one part of China. In spite of their best efforts, however, the wineglasses were far too small for the red wine that I chose. They were uniwineglasses, I presumed, that are used for serving reds and whites. The assistant waiter as is typical in China hovered and tended to overfill the glasses as though any of the three of us might at any moment challenge the other two to “Ganbei!”

The headwaiter then brought ought a mature head of bokchoy and showed us the insides by pulling off the outer leaves. We were then served a platter of these same “hearts of bokchoy”, lightly sautéed with a hint of sesame oil. Then arrived a seafood broth medley: abalone, seacucumber, scallops in a dense chicken stock. In amongst the recognizable bits there were gelatinous marine things and what appeared to be shark’s fin.

We were then served another soup that seemed to be made from squid and its own ink. I believe that it is called laroutang. Forthwith were placed in the table a platter of boiled pork and eggs, sautéed chicken heart with bamboo and red chilies, ham and bamboo in a light broth, steamed white rice, small, darkened pickled cucumbers, a dish called dofu qizi.

Then arrived the birdsnest soup sweetened and flavored with what seemed to be peach tree resin, niangao in a caramelized sugar syrup along with more of the niangao in an eggdrop soup that was oversweetened with what tasted like raw sugarcane juice, xiaoxianzi, and a carved fruit platter of melon and kumquats.

It was as we were exiting the diningroom that we were all able to observe the cooks at work making the fresh niangao and their dried pork and poultry for Chunjie. It was a mild afternoon by then and I could see the advantages to working outdoors even though the usherettes and the parkinglot attendants stood in their quilted overcoats. A gentle, arid breeze wafted through the rafters drying and curing the pork and ducks that seemed to have been hung out as part of the seasonal preparations after being dunked in a dark brining solution.