I called my mother almost every night this week, half-singing with glee. “Guess what I did today!” I would yelp happily.
I think I really need to be in a Glee Club, because these days there are so many instances when I just want to break out into a song and start dancing. And most of the time, I do just that.
Last night, as Mimi was driving me back home from a black goat stew dinner (post to come), we were playing “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” from The Book of Mormon and I was basically rocking the car with my jamborees. Next to us, a middle-aged couple was pointing at me and laughing, but I pointed and waved back joyfully.
The reason for this jubilance? 8 hours of sleep every night, good food and good company. Amazing what meeting these three basic physical components can do for your mood.
I’m a bit backlogged on photos, so I’m postponing this weekend’s ED series for a late review on some yummy eats.
I had one of the best meals of my life this Monday. It was also one of the longest and most extensive meals I’ve had at 5 hours and 10 courses. I remember interviewing Marja Vongerichten (wife of Chef Jean-Georges) and she told me she’s not a foodie because she cannot stand the hours-long multi-coursed dinners her husband indulges in.
Well, I’d gladly take her place because I had a grand time!
This extravagant dinner took place at Yujean Kang’s, a modern gourmet Chinese restaurant in Old Town Pasadena.
A disclaimer: I had connections. Yujean Kang’s is high-end cuisine so if I didn’t have connections, I would only be able to afford one appetizer.
My foodie friend Tracy Lawrence (we bonded via an article I wrote on her) is friends with the sous-chef of Yujean Kang’s, Alan Kang, who also happens to be the son of the titular head chef and owner Yujean Kang.
Alan is only 21 years old, but he already leads the kitchen. He also worked at the famous Drago Centro for a year, and he grew up running around the professional kitchen and slapping the butts of cooks as a wee boy. What a life!
Joining us was also Marilyn Chiu (aka The Nomster), fellow foodie and food blogger.
Marilyn is cute and bubbly, and every Angeleno should take a look at her blog for super cool and fun food events. It was actually the first time I met her, but I foresee many foodie adventures together.
Back to the restaurant. Apparently some people say it’s an imitation of P.F. Chang’s, but dude, P.F. Chang’s is an American chain. It mimics Chinese cuisine. Yujean Kang’s is Chinese cuisine; it is owned and operated by a 100% Chinese-blooded guy. Plus, it’s been open for 20 years—older than P.F. Chang’s.
But I have not dined at P.F. Chang’s before so I can’t compare the food, so I’ll stick to just reviewing Yujean Kang’s.
Yujean Kang’s is not at all like the “authentic” Chinese restaurant at San Gabriel Valley (aka Little Taiwan), where 90% of the customers are Chinese. It attracts more middle and upper-class Caucasians, possibly because of its location in Old Town Pasadena, and also because of its decor.
“Authentic” Chinese restaurants usually don’t fuss about with cute Oriental decors. The light is florescent and brightly lit, and waiters speak limited English and are too busy to smile as much and refill your sparkling water.
Yujean Kang’s, on the other hand, really tried to project a quaint Chinese teahouse ambience with warm red tones, old-fashioned posters and dim lanterns. It’s not the kind of place you go to guzzle beer and fork up $4.99/plate dumplings. It’s more the kind of upscale place you go for anniversaries over a glass of wine and leave a generous tip to impress your companions.
To be honest, I’ve seldom been to these kind of restaurants before. I felt a bit out of place.
Until the first course arrived. Eating? Now that I was very comfortable with.
We left the orders to the chef Alan, since he knows the best dishes on the menu in and out. We started out with Lettuce Cups with Minced Chicken:
Chicken, Taiwanese sausage, mushrooms and bell peppers stir-fried in plum wine sauce and oyster sauce, served on top of a bed of fried noodles on crisp lettuce cups.
Wow. The portion was perfect, and every bite was perfect: tender juicy chicken, sweet meaty sausage, savory mushrooms, and paper-thin yet freshly crunchy lettuce.
Second course: Crispy Shanghai Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Okay, I usually never order spring rolls because I find them tiring. I mean, they’re in every freaking Asian eatery. But these one were truly amazing.
The white insides of the flaky golden exterior is slow-braised napa cabbage—cooked down so long and slowly that there was almost a buttery, starchy quality to the humble vegetable.
How?! I never knew napa cabbage could feel so creamy like potato. So much to learn.
The spring rolls came with a trio of sauces:
Dark soy sauce, chili sauce, and house-made mustard sauce. The mustard sauce was crack. It flares the insides of your nose and the taste is both intensely sweet and fiery.
Third Course: Hot & Sour Fish Chowder
This was actually one of my favorite dishes of the night. It’s like a punch of flavor in a bowl.
The broth is speckled with pickled sour cabbage, chiffoned scallions, laces of white egg and chunks of white fish.
You know how sometimes you need to add a bit of soy sauce or pepper into your soup? You don’t need a drop of anything on this. It was seasoned just right. I have to ask Alan for the recipe, and keep vats of this in my fridge.
Fourth course: Braised Fresh Black Cod
With bok choy and shaved scallions. It’s a dish I’ve probably had many times, but dang. I can never get sick of a perfectly flaky fish with tender-crisp bok choy.
The sauce that coated the cod was slightly sweet, slightly pungent, and a whole lot of wonderful umami.
Fifth Course: Braised Tofu Sheets with Enoki and Shitake Mushrooms
I can’t seem to get rid of my tendency to pronounce “sheet” as “shit.” Don’t they sound the same? Anyway, shit or sheet, these thin fried then braised tofu is SUPER good!!
Because these tofu sheets are thin (and fried), they really absorb the flavors better. It’s kind of like eating a…meaty omelet. An egg pancake that tastes as savory as meat. I also loved that there was a generous amount of braised assorted mushrooms toppled all over.
When the waiter dished it out for us, these tofu became like noodles.
Sixth Course: Silk Squash in Beijing Style
Lightly battered and fried silk squash braised with scallions, cilantro, garlic and ginger on a bed of sautéed spinach.
Um, how freaking awesome does that sound? I loved how non-greasy the dish was, despite having been fried and braised in fat. The mouth feel of the squash was definitely silky and delicate like its name.
I had visions of some beautiful smooth squash so I was surprised to go home and google and discover that silk squash is really an ugly, bumpy-skinned gourd with rough ridges.
The soft, velvety and flavorful moss of spinach underneath was like finding a gold mine. Out of the world delicious.
Seventh Course: Lamb Loin Chrysanthemum
Sauteed lamb tender loin with mushrooms, crispy Parma ham and fresh organic chrysanthemum flowers.
I shall call this the “melt in the mouth” dish because every component of this dish is melts in your mouth.
The lamb is so juicy and tender that you barely need to chew. The crispy, brittle Parma ham (basically bacon crack) just shatters underneath your teeth like a salty, gastronomical firework. And then, of course—the star of the dish—the chrysanthemum petals kind of dissolve from the heat of your tongue, releasing this kind of subtly sweet yet almost salty floral extracts.
None of the dishes are diet food; they are meant to stick-to-the-bones satisfy, but because the waiters spread out the courses evenly, the long meal didn’t send me into a food coma. In between courses, wine, sparkling water and peach beer just kept flowing in:
I thought of my brother as I tasted this beer; he loves drinks like these and now I can gloat to him that I tried freaking PEACH beer!
Apparently Yujean Kang’s has a fine wine selection, but I wouldn’t know because I know crap about wine. But the carbonation from the beer and sparkling water helped digestion and by the end of the last savory course (about 4 hours later?), my stomach still felt ready for the last three dessert courses.
Oh, did you know photography burns a ton of calories?
I had to get up from my seat for each course because the lighting cast shadows on my side of the table. It’s hard labor, I tell you. It’s also the secret to how food bloggers stay slim.
Okay. Time for dessert.
I don’t like fruity desserts. But that watermelon sorbet was more watermelon than sorbet—pure and totally refreshing. The mango ice-cream was rich and creamy. But the star was definitely the honey ginger ice-cream—just the right hint of sweetness and spice from real ginger and honey.
Second Dessert: Mandarin Orange Cheesecake
With an outstanding almond crust and fresh fruit. Made lovingly by Alan’s mother and brother. If I were in the Kang family, I would ask for that cheesecake’s recipe as my heirloom.
Dense texture, yet light and fluffy in the mouth.
At first when I read it on the menu, I thought it would be the traditional Shanghai style with rice flour crepe. But it turned out to be wrapped in fragile wonton wrapped then deep-fried to a crispy package filled with smooth red bean paste.
This was my favorite dessert. Must recreate this at home. But first, must get deep-fryer. Sigh.
Well, that part came true that night. I was honored with a wonderful (and free) meal by an admirable chef, Yujean Kang, and his team, including the wonderful waiters who waited patiently while Marilyn and I took a good 10 minutes photographing each course.
I was also honored by the company of my lovely three dining companions, who talk about each dish with such infectious and heartening enthusiasm. I admire all three’s passions—Tracy as an entrepreneur, Alan as a rising chef, and Marilyn as a soon-to-be occupational therapist.
By the time I got home, it was past 10 p.m. (we had dinner at 5 p.m.). I talked to my mother on the way home and I told her, “Mom, I’m so freaking blessed.”
And not just because I scored a 10-course, 5-hour long meal.
P.S. Ironically, I won a $300 gift card to P.F. Chang’s today from Cinderella 11pm, a luxury travel blog (with equally sublime reviews and giveaways). I guess I’ll have to give it a chance too. More on that next time.
Question of the Day: 10 courses, 3 dining companions, 1 location. What, who and where would you like to have the best meal of your life?