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RestaurantsNorth Bay
December 21-27, 2005

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Wonton Christmas

Water chestnuts roasting on an open fire: where to eat Chinese on Christmas

By Molly Jackel

I miss New York City at Christmastime. It's not the tree in Rockefeller Center or the ice skaters, the gray snow or the windows at Lord & Taylor's. It's eating Chinese food and going to a movie on Christmas Day, a New York Jew's ritual.

Why Chinese on Christmas? It probably started because nothing else was open, and because Chinese restaurants, where meat and dairy typically don't mix, are a good choice for those keeping kosher.

I began scouting the Chinese-restaurant scene immediately upon arrival in the North Bay, and soon realized why people don't share my obsession with Chinese food: the pickin's are slim. I've also learned that what we call pan-fried dumplings, you call pot stickers. Lo mein there is chow mein here. (It's always refreshing to see those regional differences alive and well, despite the information superhighway—or freeway.) But the most shocking disparity of all is how few Chinese restaurants are even open on Christmas. What the—?! Toto, I have a feeling we're not in New York anymore.

Most area Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve (see sidebar below), but only the following of my short list are open on the big day. Also, the Friedman Center thankfully hosts a special movie and Chinese event—the whole deal—on Dec. 25.

China Room (500 Mission Blvd., Santa Rosa, 707.539.5570) is an anomaly not only because it's open on Christmas Day, but also because it serves only free-range chicken, doesn't use MSG, has a special menu of organic dishes and makes its own organic tofu. For those who regularly suspend their eating principles to enjoy dining out, this restaurant is a Baby Jesus-send.

The seafood and tofu soup ($7.95) in a mild egg drop broth is chock-full of shrimp, scallops and homemade tofu. Off the seasonal menu, check out the sea bass in a hot clay pot with shiitake mushrooms in a roasted garlic sauce ($12.95). The fish is fresh and flaky, and the mushrooms, meaty and well-cooked.

For a special treat, try the steamed whole sea bass with ginger and scallion sauce ($25.95), and don't miss some of the best moo shu ($8.95) you'll ever have, juicy with nicely julienned, super-fresh vegetables. Other good choices include the pine nut, prawns and chicken lettuce roll ($11.95); shredded pork and leek in hot chili sauce ($8.95); and sautéed organic Swiss chard with shiitake mushrooms ($12.95).

The other Chinese restaurant in the North Bay that I could find open on Christmas day is Yet Wah (1238 Fourth St., San Rafael, 415.460.9883). If you go for dinner, Yet Wah has special Dungeness crab dishes and a full bar; go for lunch, and you can order off the dim sum menu. It's not the kind of dim sum hawked by young ladies from their rolling carts, but the offerings were plentiful, fresh and delicious.

From the dim sum menu, try the chive dumpling ($3), with its translucent rice-flour skin filled with chives and shrimp; the shark fin dumpling ($3) of pork, shrimp and scallions wrapped in a wrinkly wonton skin; the turnip cake ($3); and the roasted duck ($5).

If you're going for dinner, don't miss the baked crab with spicy salt (market price is around $23.95). The whole thing, claws and all, was salted, lightly battered and deep-fried, then served with a topping of frizzled scallions and bell peppers. It was divine. Also recommended is the hot and spicy eggplant ($7.95), slathered in roasted garlic, tender but not mushy nor drowning in sweet sauce. The hot and sour soup ($6.75) was lovely, as were the vegetable pot stickers ($5.75).

Eve of Consumption

While Christmas Day may be off-limits, many excellent Chinese restaurants serve on Christmas Eve

Gary Chu's Upscale Chinese dining with new and classic dishes in an elegant setting. Chu's offers first-rate hot and sour soup. Also try the pine nut chicken in lettuce cup, stir-fried pea leaves and the beautifully cooked tea-smoked duck. They boast a decent wine list and good service. 611 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Sunday. 707.526.5840.

Jennie Low's A locally owned small chain, Jennie Low's specializes in light, healthy Cantonese, Mandarin, Hunan, and Szechuan home-style cooking. Great selection, including a substantial swathe of vegetarian fare and a special light menu. Lunch and dinner daily. Two locations: Vintage Oaks Shopping Center, Rowland Ave., Novato, 415.892.8838. Also, 38 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.8868.

Kirin Specializing in Mandarin, Szechuan and Peking-style cooking, Kirin has a bright, bustling atmosphere and great service. Check out the shiitake mushroom pork with thick slices of tender pork loin, meaty mushrooms and perfectly cooked bok choy. Another must-have: the delicate, garlicky pot stickers—perhaps the best in Sonoma County. 2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday; Sunday, dinner only. 707.525.1957.

Northbay Seafood Restaurant What a find! Northbay features some of the most authentic Cantonese and Mandarin food in the area. The setting isn't much, but everything on the menu is expertly prepared, reasonably priced and fresh-tasting. You can even get a fine Peking duck for just $11.50. 936 Diablo Ave., Novato. Lunch and dinner daily. 415.897.8498.

Royal China This restaurant is not open Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (it's closed Dec. 24-27 this year), but is so great in so many ways that I can't leave it off the list. Try the spicy string bean chicken, which is not saucy and sweet, but a drier, more savory version. The basil calamari is flash-fried, tender and perfectly cooked. Very solid wonton soup, hot and sour soup and pot stickers. Service is professional, and the décor is smart. 3080 Marlowe Road, Santa Rosa. Lunch and dinner, Sunday-Friday; Saturday, dinner only. 707.545.2911.

Tai Yuet Lau The restaurant's look is nothing to write home about, but try the sizzling chicken with black pepper sauce, with perfectly cooked button mushrooms, onions, and a peppery, savory glaze, and the wonton soup with a robust chicken broth and lots of lovely wontons. 941 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday; Sunday, dinner only. 707.584.3838.

A final note: Vegevillage in Boyes Hot Springs was the only Chinese restaurant wholly devoted to vegetarian cuisine that we were aware of in the North Bay. It's since—ain't it the way—closed. But wait! A new restaurant has launched in that location, Thailand Thai Cuisine—and it's open on Christmas Day. If you go, let us know. 18350 Hwy. 12, Boyes Hot Springs, 707.939.8383. Also, we tried and tried to find a reputable Chinese restaurant in the Napa Valley and came up empty-handed. Surely this isn't the case?

The Friedman Center hosts its 'Chinese Meal and a Movie' benefit for the Jewish Community Free Clinic on Sunday, Dec. 25. The kids can watch 'An American Tail'; 'Crossing Delancey' is the adult fare. Food provided by the Peking Chef, plus children's activities and entertainment by Scott Gerber, the Yiddish cowboy. Bring a gently used stuffed animal to share and a menorah and candles to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. Friedman Center, 4676 Mayette Ave., Santa Rosa. $5-$20; children under five are free, and the entire family is $40. 707.792.1932.

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