According to an industry magazine, the U.S. is facing a shortage of Chinese chefs. Apparently, China’s newfound prosperity is keeping them at home. While New York and Los Angeles may still be able to attract top Sino chefs to their shores, in San Antonio that means only one thing: more buffets.
Yes, I realize buffets have their place, but they aren’t necessarily the ideal location for a celebration of Chinese New Year. Especially not for a trial run in advance of the event. Even though I steeled myself against the danger of becoming obsessed with authenticity, it was difficult to pin down such a restaurant. The chefs and critics that made Kim Wah such a darling of the dine-out set have largely abandoned it in the wake of a management change. Smart money these days is on the Golden Phoenix Café (it’s Andrew Weissman’s favorite, for example), but the Current had reviewed it relatively recently. Much agony ensued. Chinese tradition calls for whole fish, for example, and whole fish has given way to the equivalent of fish fingers on many menus. (OK, I exaggerate — but only slightly.)
In the end, it was Van’s online menu that seemed most appropriate — especially considering that the celebration is, after all, pan-Asian, and we could indulge in side trips to Japan, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Besides, it listed whole fish … which turned out not to be available after all. (We were assured that it would be during the two-week celebration beginning February 7, along with suckling pig and other traditional delicacies.) They also have an extraordinary wine list, OK? Let the substitutions begin.
Traditions, of course, change even in the country of origin. In China, many people are said to abstain from meat on the first day of the lunar new year — thus ruling out suckling pig; they pray to their ancestors and are especially kind to dogs on the second; on the third day sons-in-law are expected to pay respect to their wifes’ parents … and on the seventh day, considered the birthday of humans, noodles (the longer the better) are served to encourage longevity and raw fish is eaten for success. New Year’s Eve is a family feast called “surrounding the stove,” during which departed relatives are remembered. Now, let the feast begin.
I like to begin a new year, by whatever calendar, with a challenge (though not necessarily a resolution), but to my dining family’s great relief, the dried-jellyfish salad wasn’t available. (You, however, can have it if you call ahead a couple of days so they can soak the salted product.) As the first of many substitutions, the co-owner and obsessed wine buyer offered a salad of julienned lotus root (lotus seed signifies many male offspring) with shrimp, pork, mint, fish sauce, and more, and it was stunning. (Just ask for the special lotus-root salad.) More traditionally, we had also picked the gyoza, by any other name (potsticker, for example) a staple throughout Asia, and found them reassuringly meaty. And, of course, much enhanced by their accompanying dipping sauce.
By now we knew that whole fish was not to be, so, it being Dungeness Crab Fest time at Van’s, we settled on the whole crustacean. In fact, the crab appeared to have been steamed, the top shell removed, the remainder hacked into pieces and sautéed with black-bean sauce and scallion. Or some variation on that procedure. The whole top shell was then placed over the dish for presentation. Extracting the meat from such a creation is a little more work than I like under the circumstances, and I can always use more bean sauce than is typically presented, but in the long run it was worth the effort. Almost. And the Alsatian gewürztraminer suggested by the owner (not from his lengthy list; it’s more of a suggestion of what might be than what is) was a beguiling companion.
Not being much of a slurper, I tend to get frustrated with long noodles, too, but the best approach here seemed to be having them in soup — braised-duck and egg-noodle soup to be precise. There’s a comforting sufficiency of duck nicely perfumed with the usual fragrant spices in the dish, and the broth gets better the longer you let it sit, as broths often do. The moderately lengthy noodles aren’t too unwieldy, either, so score one for both propriety and longevity.
Whole chicken, another seasonal tradition, presented another problem: Not only was there not a chicken with head and feet intact on the menu, there was no chicken not already disassembled. Next substitution: steamed chicken in ginger sauce. Shorn even of their skin, these are large breast pieces, and they have been rendered silky by the steaming. Silky but not necessarily savory; for that, they really need the ginger sauce. I sometimes need to remind myself that all Asian cuisine isn’t Thai- or Korean-spicy. Once reminded, the dish satisfied in a subtle and delicate fashion.
But it did leave us wanting something both with a little oomph and to accompany a truly exceptional bottle of Gigondas — again from one of the many wine racks encircling the space, not from the list. Hence the pork spare ribs in peppercorn — not really traditional in the manner of the black-moss seaweed and dried bean curd we had failed to inquire about, but at this point nobody was counting.
Now, it should be mentioned that among the many other New Year’s traditions is an injunction on using foul language or uttering negative terms — not that the ribs merited either. But they were a little disappointing. There was good crunch from the frying and adequate meat on the bones, but the black pepper failed to provide the punch we had been hoping for, and the chopped garlic tasted as if it came from a jar. (Some standard sweet-and-sour ribs that were delivered by mistake — and left on the table — were actually better, to our assembled surprise.) We trust this modest criticism won’t make the folks at Van’s cry on New Year’s Day, for that means they will do so all year long, and such was not our intent.
If reservations for New Year’s Eve continued as we were told they were going, that celebration might already be booked at Van’s, but there are two more weeks to go. Remember, though, that on the 13th day, you should have a simple rice congee with mustard greens to cleanse the system. Not a bad idea for the rest of the year, either. •
Van’s Chinese and Vietnamese Restaurant
Careful selection will yield dependable Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine
The special lotus-root salad and the excellent wine selection
Do you feel like a Rat?
Do you crave pork, peas, and cabbage?
On your good days are you meticulous, intelligent, shrewd, compassionate, charismatic, charming, ambitious, practical, industrious, honest, eloquent, versatile, familial, creative, hard-working, neat, and organized?
Do your critics call you controlling, obstinate, back-stabbing, resentful, humorless, manipulative, cruel, vengeful, power-driven, critical, possessive, stingy, bossy, fickle, defensive, quarrelsome, or dishonest?
You’re a Rat all right! Hang out with Dragons and Monkeys. Avoid Rabbits, Roosters, Horses, Oxen, and Pigs (unless you’re eating pork). And mind your tail.
The Rat Years
And, of course, if your baby’s due between February 7, 2008, and January 25, 2009, you’ll have a baby Rat on hand.
Foods eaten to celebrate the Chinese New Year festival vary by province, ethnicity, and family custom, but two common themes are homonyms (foods that sound like fortune-bearing words such as prosperity) and wholeness, which represents continued abundance and an unsevered chain of good luck. Fish and chicken, for instance are traditionally served with their heads and fins/feet attached, and long noodles are consumed year-round, but also at the New Year, to invoke longevity. Careful with the lotus root, though; lotus seeds symbolize an abundance of male offspring. Attending a Spring Festival dinner and don’t want to show up empty-handed? Bring tangerines and mandarin oranges to symbolize gold and wealth.