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Long on Enchantment

Mei Long Restaurant
Eat at Liu's: Virtuoso chef Renyi Liu brings his Shanghai training and Culinary Institute of America polish to Mei Long Restaurant where he currently dazzles with intricate Szechuan and Shanghai foods.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

A dinner at the stylish new Mei Long Restaurant reveals the handiwork of a master chef in a setting as gorgeous as the food

By Christina Waters

TWO WORDS: Renyi Liu. Remember them. You'll be hearing a lot about this virtuoso chef who has brought his Shanghai training and Culinary Institute of America polish to an unassuming corner on El Camino Real, where he currently makes dazzling dishes for a small but growing cult following.

One look at the sophisticated interior and at the careful listing of wines selected to accompany Liu's food--chosen by Wine Spectator award winner Nicholas Liang--and you know you're not in strip-mall territory anymore. This is definitely the sort of interior Alfred Hitchcock might have used in Vertigo, I thought, glancing at the jewel-like bar perched just inside the front door. Oversized curved booths the color of Kim Novak's hair matched the pale tones used throughout this attractive dining room. Banks of mirrors romance the space, reflecting sculptural floral arrangements. The room seems to glow in a sleek, cosmopolitan way. Hard to believe that this restaurant is wedged between a fast-food place and a strip of car dealerships.

While my intrepid dining partner, Corinne, was still somewhere in gridlock, I slid happily into this well-orchestrated movie and was informed that while chef Liu was quite classically trained, he was interested in presenting Chinese culinary traditions in a Western style. Sommelier Liang has helped this process by choosing small-production California and French wines to accompany the intricate Szechuan and Shanghai foods Liu prepares.

Glancing at the small, bistro-sized menu, I saw that an Alsatian Pinot Auxerrois has been suggested to accompany an appetizer of warm smoked ling cod. A St. Supéry Merlot is paired with a Szechuan shredded chicken dish. This sort of interactive menu-making goes further, and offers diners wines by the half glass, as well as full glass and bottle. Here's a restaurant that understands wine lovers who want to sample, but don't want to overdo.

Humming along with something by Bach--even though I really thought that this sort of glam setting deserves light jazz--I savored a generous half-pour of Babcock, Eleven Oaks, Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc 1994 ($3.50) that expanded into an oral seduction of citrus, green peppers and oak, and enjoyed being pampered by the splendid staff who clearly love this chef's riffs on the Pacific Rim.

I soon found out why. Confident that any minute now, Corinne would telephone to say that she'd been tricked by the erratic numbering system for which El Camino Real is famous, I went ahead and ordered potstickers ($3.95) and an appetizer of tofu and beef with "dry orange peel flavor" ($4.95), along with a half glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Matanzas Creek, 1995 ($2.75).

My eyes were dancing. The tofu plate turned out to be an edible butterfly: Custardy layers of faintly five-spice-scented tofu were the wings; tiny nuggets of intensely flavored beef formed the body; and the tail was composed of pungent cabbage pickle with micro-zest of carrot. Soft meets crunchy, sweet meets salty--every flavor was perfect. Prettily presented with fresh crisp sugar pea pods, the succulent pastries--filled with a mousse of pork and Szechuan peppercorn and ignited by a ginger glaze--were handmade in the kitchen. As I entered a dream state, it only barely occurred to me that Corinne had not yet appeared.

Could Martha Stewart pair a branch of eucalyptus with wild ginger leaves, irises and yarrow in quite this pleasing a way, I wondered? In the booth behind me a couple--who've already been here several times--sighed over a soup filled with scallops, prawns, mussels and Zhen Jian vinegar. I struggled to save a final bite of the incredibly supple tofu for the long-lost Corinne--but I didn't struggle very hard.

Having vamped for time all I was going to, I ordered two entrées: braised duck with red wine sauce ($14.95) for me, and the Szechuan sauté shredded chicken with vinegar and ginger ($11.95) "for Corinne." Pairing these with a half-glass of the Chateau Potelle, Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 ($3)--a wine of luxurious leather and spice tones--I let the duck dazzle me.

Purring under a satin sauce of wine and pan juices and topped with micro-julienne of scallions, the duck found its mate in the surprisingly tart braised pea sprouts. Two crescent steamed buns sat on each side of the greens. Does chef Liu make house calls, I wondered?

I tried a forkful--okay, several forkfuls--of the vinegary and ginger-aromatic shredded chicken. Corinne would love this! A perfect disk of fragrant white rice sat under a scarlet disk of beet. A mound of simply braised, sweet, fresh spinach accompanied. Chef Liu has conquered me.

Mei Long

Address: 867 E. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Phone: 415/961-4030
Hours: Lunch weekdays; dinner nightly.
Price: Moderate
Chef: Renyi Liu
Ambiance: Western setting/Eastern expertise
Service: Expert
Cuisine: Classic Chinese with updated nouvelle spin

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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