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Fortune Cooking

[whitespace] Year of the Tiger
Illustration by Terri Groat-Ellner

Chinese restaurants plan banquets to bring good luck and plenty in the Year of the Tiger

By Andrew X. Pham

THIS WEDNESDAY (Jan. 28) heralds the Year of the Tiger and the beginning of great feasting. Primed by the traditional belief that those who eat well during the new year will enjoy plenty for the remaining months, Chinese-Americans will celebrate the entire week (some the entire month), pulling out all the plugs and dining with abandon. With Chinese restaurants scrambling to cater to this sentiment, the upcoming weeks will be rife with options for fans of Chinese cuisine.

The South Bay's best Chinese restaurants are shifting gears, placing huge orders of foods and compiling elaborate banquets the likes of which are not seen at any other time (even wedding banquets pale in comparison). There will be ducks, chickens, pigeons, pigs, prawns, lobsters, scallops, fish, shark fins and vegetables galore. Despite the range of ingredients, most restaurants will feature similar dishes (or variations thereof) because, in Chinese cuisine, certain dishes are traditional "celebration food" while others are "food of good fortune."

Nearly every kitchen will offer arrays of cold appetizers of such delicacies as honey-roasted duck, chicken, Chinese ham, peasant duck pâté, smoked abalone, cured fish, squid, octopus and seasoned jellyfish. Garnished with parsley, pickled daikon and brushlike scallions, these gossamer slices of chilled meats are layered in circles like flower petals and accompanied by several condiments, including sweet-and-sour sauce, bean paste, hot mustard and chile paste.

There also will be roasted meat (duck, pig or nestling pigeon) and soup. The two favorite seasonal soups are shark fin and winter melon. The former comes in many variations on a basic base of julienne shark fin, white chicken meat, chicken stock and cornstarch. This thick, musky classic often proves to be an acquired taste. More elegant and universally appealing, winter melon soup (also known as winter melon pond when a whole melon is used as a soup crock) has a fragrant broth laced with chicken, lotus seeds, salt, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and the sweet, translucent flesh of the winter fruit. This soup is most flavorful when cooked inside the melon.

Naturally, a New Year Banquet isn't complete without fish, preferably a whole fish, representing prosperity, carved head to tail, decorated and served on a great porcelain tray. It is the Chinese equivalent of the American Thanksgiving turkey. The fish is usually served steamed or baked with a light ginger-soy sauce. A discerning server will inquire and place the fish with the head pointed at the person being honored. This presentation offers that diner with the choicest meat, the part just behind the head of the fish.

Rice and vegetable stir-fry dishes also will be on the menu. Dessert, generally the least glamorous course, is likely to be a token serving of something sweet. Overall, high-end restaurants will incorporate a little of everything into their 10-course banquets, so there will be plenty to sample.

Serving good food at reasonable prices, Ocean Harbor (370 S. Winchester Blvd., San Jose, 408/243-3366; Cantonese) is a big favorite for families and Asian American yuppies. Dimly lit, the atmosphere is decidedly traditional with sturdy dark woods and splashes of imperial red. For those who can't rope together a party of 10, the restaurant has a sign-up list to facilitate seating. On the bill ($38 per person) are minced seafood in lettuce cups, a seafood and meat platter, winter melon with meat and seafood soup, lobster tail, baked squab (nestling pigeon), salted and baked sea bass, sautéed scallops, seafood fried rice and sweet rice dessert.

For pairs who prefer to sample New Year specialties at a table for two, Mei Long provides the ideal destination for refined Chinese dining (867 E. El Camino Real, Los Altos, 650/961-4030; classical Chinese). A new arrival to the Los Altos scene, the restaurant is already garnering accolades and developing a devout following with its excellent cuisine and gorgeously stylized presentations. Service is formal and very attentive. For parties of 10, the $298-per-table menu has all the classic dishes: cold cuts, braised oysters, vegetable stir-fry, shark fin soup, abalone with greens, lobster, whole steamed fish, fried rice and dessert.

Pagoda Restaurant (inside the Fairmont Hotel, 170 S. Market, San Jose, 408/998-3937; classic Chinese) is hosting a gala--reservations required--on Jan. 27. This evening will be studded with performances by martial arts and dance troupes. Pagoda's 10-course banquet ($37 per person) is open to parties of all sizes. A different menu will be featured Jan. 28-Feb. 10. Needless to say, from its posh layout to its lavishly tended cuisine, Pagoda Restaurant is an old hand at impressing a crowd.

Mayflower Restaurant (428 Barber Lane, Milpitas, 408/922-2700; Cantonese) is a gargantuan restaurant, one of Silicon Valley's three heavyweights outfitted for banquets. The main dining room seems as big as a football stadium and glitters with chandeliers. The kitchen has two special New Year banquet menus, both priced for tables of 10. At $218 per table, the bill of fare lists a barbecue platter, deep-fried chicken roll with taro, sautéed scallops with black pepper, dried scallop soup with egg white, roasted chicken with garlic, braised dried oyster with black moss, baked crab with ginger, steamed sole, sticky rice with preserved pork and Chinese sausage, and dessert. The dishes for the $328 table are assorted appetizer platters, braised oyster with black moss, conch and scallop in hot sauce, shark fin soup, roasted squab, braised pork shank on lettuce, steamed lobster with vermicelli, smoked black cod, sticky rice and dessert.

Chef Chu's (1067 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos, 650/948-2696; Shanghai) dishes up a flamboyant New Year feast particularly tuned to Western palates. For $40 per person (table of 10 required), Chef Chu's will serve candied fruits and nuts, roasted suckling pig, winter melon soup with ham and mushrooms, scallops sautéed with veggies in a wine sauce and served in pastry shells, steamed beef cloaked in star anise-infused rice powder, lobster tail with prawns, chicken with honeyed chestnuts, stir-fry vegetables, fried rock cod in sweet-and-sour sauce, fruit rice, and sesame taro dessert rolls.

Ming's (1700 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, 650/856-7700; Cantonese and Mandarin), a popular location for wedding banquets, has been a steady performer for years. The restaurant is elegant, although a bit worn around the edges from the thousands of guests who have enjoyed its food. At $218 for a table of 10, the kitchen prepares a repast of cold cuts, braised oysters, scallops and broccoli, shark fin soup, lobster sautéed with ginger and scallion, Chinese ham, black mushroom and veggies, steamed whole fish, fried rice and dessert.

Silver Wing (10885 N. Wolfe Road, 408/873-7228, Szechwan and Yangchow) is a very good candidate for a New Year bash. The staff is well-trained and the cooks are adept at crafting dishes with plenty of "wok fragrance." The dining room is formally finished but its ambiance is casual and comfortable. There are several New Year banquet menus, ranging from $198 to $350 for a table of 10.

Although the head chef hadn't finalized his New Year menu at press time, we are placing bets on Canton Delights (10125 Bandley Drive, Cupertino, 408/ 777-9888; Cantonese with Macau flair) for a virtuoso performance. Its staff is one of the best-trained in the business, blending both Eastern and Western styles of service. Small but well-maintained down to the details, the dining room, banked with windows, is richly carpeted and tastefully furnished--not a tacky detail in sight. For price and quality, this restaurant is hard to beat. Prices start around $298 for a table of 10.

THE OBVIOUS ALTERNATIVE to the orchestrated gluttony of a New Year banquet is the chaotic excess of a Chinese-style shabu-shabu feast. Originating in Japan as a party dish, shabu-shabu swept through Hong Kong, Taiwan and parts of mainland China like an epidemic. Recently, it made the leap to the U.S and was given the ultimate American makeover: It was buffet-ized. If anything, its "fun factor" has jumped threefold.

Shabu-shabu is served with a chafing dish in which each diner dips raw morsels of meat and vegetables into a steaming broth. In Japan, ingredients are limited: wafer-thin slices of beef or lamb, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, tofu, wheat gluten, bamboo shoot, daikon and kelp. In the South Bay, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say anything edible is fair game. For instance, at a decently stocked buffet, one can expect to find pork, beef, chicken, liver, intestines, imitation crab, prawns, cod filets, fish balls, beef balls, tofu balls, fried tofu, steamed tofu, tofu skin, kimchi, noodles, bean sprouts, bell peppers, carrots and a dozen other items. But the two original dipping sauces are still basically unchanged. One is a citron-based ponzu sauce; the other is made of toasted ground white sesame seeds, dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake.

The new South Bay shabu-shabu hot spots is Hana Shabu-Shabu (873 Castro St., Mountain View, 650/988-6931). Barely half a year old, it is a strip-mall diner that hopes to attract patrons with an extra-large spread and a Mongolian-style barbecue grill (lunch $10; dinner $13). Here, diners are given individual iron pots set on gel burners, making it easier for each person to customize his own broth. (Note: Neither pots nor burners are secured, so parents may want to leave small children at home.)

There is an old peasant saying: Peace, love and joy all start in the stomach; a good meal can change the world. Start the New Year properly by eating well, and who knows what wonders this Year of the Tiger might drag in.

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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