Friday, February 4, 2011

Fun Dancing With Lions and Playing with Chinese New Year Food

Yesterday was the first official day of Lunar New Year, which is celebrated throughout Asia. Despite Wednesday night's fuzzy weather, our group of 7 ventured to Cleveland's Li Wah Restaurant for a Chinese New Year Dinner and Lion Dance put on by the venerable Kwan family and martial arts troupe. 

Li Wah offered both "Americanized" special dishes and some a la carte items that were more authentic. We opted for the prix fix Chinese New Year Family Dinner Special for 6, and added one a la carte dish to it, since we were seven. Quantity was perfect even though we had a few power eaters at the table. And we got to feed Lucky Money to the Lion and ask for good luck and prosperity in the New Year. 

BBQ Combination

The first course, traditionally served cold, included crispy duck and BBQ pork over jellyfish, crispy pickled vegetables, cucumber and orange slices (the latter representing coins with their shape and money with their green and orange colors). An auspicious beginning.

Assorted Seafood, Bamboo & Shark's Fin Soup

Though fresh and tasty (and very gelatinous from the shark fins), the soup seemed a little bland. 

A splash of chili oil and flakes woke it up nicely - note the way the oil reacted with the surface of the soup - the mouthfeel was exquisitely soft.

Lobster with Ginger and Scallions

Fresh lobster cooked to perfection was shell-licking good.  The next course was our "add on" dish:

Beef with Pepper and Honey

Note the continuing "green" color theme with the tender asparagus and "coins" of zucchini.

Sauteed Assorted Seafood & House X.O. Sauce

X.O. Sauce is ubiquitous on the modern Chinese New Year menu (it is believed to have originated in Hong Kong in the 1980s). The sauce is named after XO Cognac to symbolize wealth and status - both themes central to the New Year celebration. This rich sauce masked well any hints of chemistry on the food service  grade seafood (which, given the price point under $25 per person for all of the prix fix dinner menus, is to be expected). The dish was most satisfying (though I skipped the shrimp), especially the squid. 

Shredded Dry Scallops & Pea Pod Leaves

Dry scallops, or conpoy, are very expensive, which is probably why they were sparingly used in this dish. Blazing hot, fresh from the wok and redolent with fresh garlic - this plate wowed the table.

Steamed Whole Fish

I was pleased to be served the traditional steamed whole fish - I recall a Chinese New Year meal at Li Wah a few years ago where our table was served a fillet instead of the whole beast. Steamed whole fish is another important Chinese New Year tradition, but one that Westerners often eschew. I made a point of telling our server that we didn't want any changes to the menu, but to tell the kitchen to serve us exactly what they'd serve Chinese customers (this was after the first course came out with the neon red cherry halves on it, though since red is an important New Year's color, I may have had nothing to worry about). After we thought we were done, our server scraped and served out all of the last bits from among the bones, and insisted that Bob eat it because he was "too skinny"!

Free of soy sauce or other cloying flavors, this dish is a traditional way to end a Chinese Banquet (our servers, probably weary of explaining to Western guests that white rice is not served at a Chinese Banquet, had also dropped a big bowl of the latter on the turntable earlier in the meal). I didn't notice the flavor and ethereal texture that lard - the most authentic frying medium for this dish - would have brought to the plate, but the clean, fresh flavors satisfied nonetheless.

Fried Half Chicken

Though not as lip-smackingly good as Wonton Gourmet's version - this dish also came to the table wok-hot, with crispy skin and tender meat. We enjoyed every bite.

As often happens at Chinese Banquets - dessert was simple. And sufficient. We were all full, but not stuffed, and having enjoyed a lovely meal, we next enjoyed the Lion Dance performance. I video-ed some of it, but am still on new-camera-learning-curve and haven't figured out how to transfer video off of the data card, which none of the three programs that came with the camera seem to do (anyone who knows how to work .mts files please feel free to pipe up in the comments or send me an email). Suffice it to say that we all played with great food and a festive Lion Dance to ring in the Year of the Rabbit in Cleveland Asiatown with the Hom family at Li Wah!

Items from the special menus will be offered throughout the two week New Year Celebration, and Lion Dances will be repeated this Saturday and Sunday at 11am during Dim Sum service. Gongxi gongxi!

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