Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I'm getting winded...

How many of you readers out there have run the Boston Marathon? I know who you are…put your hands down. Well, at this point in my Wok About 2009, I feel like I’m half-way up Heartbreak Hill (or in my case “Heartburn Hill) and I just can’t go on. With the encouragement from the girls of Wellesley College and the BC crowd, I feel my spirit rising (if not my sodium levels) and I am beginning to ascend to the apex…

While the food samplings were getting better, I’m still climbing a mountain. At this point, I’m sort of at the base camp of the better places. I put “Imperial China” and “Eo Noodle”, both of Framingham, in this camp. I don’t go to Eo Noodle very often, but was invited to dine with some friends for lunch a few weeks back. While slightly more expensive than most Chinese luncheon joints, I will say that the food was tasty and plentiful. I give this a positive review.

On the same level is “Imperial China” of Framingham. I remember when it was “Pagoda Luau” 30 years ago, then “May Garden” after that, and for the past 15 years, “Imperial China”. I like the food well enough, and it is usually tasty, but oddly, each dish looks eerily similar, but tastes different. If you get “Ma La Chicken” and “Chicken with Ginger and Scallion”, they could be identical twins, but their flavor profiles are totally different and unique. I am intrigued, and perplexed, at the same time. “He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can't look away…”

We like Imperial China…I give their Hot and Sour Soup high marks, and they serve little crispy noodles with the soup at the beginning of the meal. Their prices are a little high considering the amount of food you get, but overall, I am favorably inclined to it. One “feature” some of you may find off-putting, especially if you have kids: the restaurant has a slightly more upscale feel to it’s bar area, which includes a white baby grand piano. They usually have a talented piano player there (and one of my charter Critical Palate subscribers is related to someone in their talent pool so check her out on Thursdays), but the bar does have a little bit of a “super cougar” meat-market feel to it. When I walk in there, I feel like I’ve walked in to a pit bull den with my throat painted with gravy.

Moving up a step, I have to recommend “Chef Chang’s House” in Brookline. This is the granddaddy of all Szechwan style restaurants. I’ve been eating there at least since maybe 1980, perhaps before that.

After spending my formative years dining on chunks of beef or chicken in some MSG-laden mysterious brown sauce, CCH was a revelation. I got to admit, I was pretty comfortable eating my House of Roy special one Sunday a month when my parents told me we were meeting my Aunt Sarah at a “new” Chinese restaurant near her house in Brookline. With some typical attitude, I begrudgingly went along for the ride to CCH, and holy bat crap Batman…a new world was opened to me.

Imagine you’ve spent the first 14 years of your life thinking that Chinese food was battered chicken smothered in a redolent brown sauce with some unknown green vegetables and maybe some water chestnuts (whatever the hell those are) and maybe a shred of carrot or two; Hong Sue Gae anyone? The only Number 69 I was familiar with was Beef and Broccoli, which is in the same sauce that the Hong Sue Gae came in... throw in some dinner rolls and ahhhh, I can almost taste the Moon Palace now.

But then, you arrive at CCH…like Billy Jack returning to the Freedom School. You think the Asian writing looks vaguely familiar, the dark brown and black and red and gold of the d├ęcor shouts “Chinese Restaurant”, but alas, this is not the same. But that night, we embarked on a journey from which I have never returned…a journey into…”The Szechwan Zone”!

Gone were the stainless elevated bowls with lids, gone was the dark, semi-sweet fried rice…gone was the watery “Won Ton” soup. Enter, not the Dragon, but Hot and Sour soup and Kung Pao Chicken.

While I haven’t been back to CCH in several months, for its overall impact on my foodie life, I have to strongly recommend it, at least for nostalgic reasons. CCH opened me to the world of flavors and textures and vegetables previously unknown to my family or me. It tipped my Asian cuisine world on its axis, in the best possible way. I have never been the same since.

Coming up next, after the break…the top two…the best of the best of Wok About 2009.

You’ve been great. For now, enjoy “Coven.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Build a better Mousetrap!

Ok, so when I look back and think about all my Asian experiences, I can’t help but think, “damn, I ate a lot of crap.” It was tough, but I did it for you, my dining public.

So, we continue to ascend the ladder of food experiences, on our way to the big prize-the world’s largest barf bag!

Now, we’re beginning to get incrementally better.

Up next, “The Wok” in Wellesley. I had a perfectly pleasant lunch there with a “FOP”-“Friend of the Palate”, but I think the company was better than the food. Nothing terrible, but nothing outstanding. A perfectly acceptable place; just keep your expectations in check.

By way of charity, I have to put “Taam China” in Brookline in this category. I do so, because it’s the only all-Kosher entry and I need to give a shout-out to my kosher peeps. As many of you readers know, we keep “kosher” at home, and I do not eat any pork or shellfish or other “traife” items out of the house (some people call this “biblical kosher” meaning that I only eat things that are kosher animals, by definition…other people call it “hypocritical”…doesn’t matter to me what you call it, it works for us.) So, if we’re bringing in Chinese food to the house, it has to be from a kosher place. Taam China isn’t terrible…like in “Chinese food from a gas station” terrible, but it’s not great. The Hot and Sour Soup comes with shredded beef, instead of pork. The rest of the food didn’t cause me to rush to toss my dinner, like the old “Hunan Shalom” did. The problem is also that it’s in Brookline, which is about a half hour from here. I give them high marks for packaging, because by the time you get back here to MetroWest, it’s still hot. Now, if Chai Peking in Atlanta can do that…

I was invited to the FOPs’ house, and was treated to take-out from Shanghai-Tokyo in Natick. This was a pleasant surprise. When I imagine what take-out probably should be, it could be this. The food was fresh, well-packaged, and pretty tasty. Sure, eating from take-out containers isn’t the same as eating from overflowing platters, or even the elevated stainless bowls, but this was pretty good. Thankfully, no Shanghai “surprise” after!

Lotus Flower in Framingham. This place was good for one thing, and one thing only-buffet. I’m not saying it’s great (and certainly the Senior Palate would drive over here and kick my ass if I did), but as far as buffets in the MetroWest go, I like it. I should say I “liked” it, because one of you faithful readers sent me an article from last week’s MetroWest Daily News informing the world that they have been cited for Board of Health violations, as has every dining establishment in that strip plaza in Framingham. So, if you want some “pork to-mein” or “mouse droppings in garlic sauce”, this might be your place.

Ignoring the rat crap for a moment, I do want to point out two stories about Lotus. Many years ago, a friend ate there and had an utterly awful meal. He left a light tip, if any. Well, as he was walking out in the parking lot, the waiter or manager actually chased him down and yelled at him. Always love those sorts of things.

More interestingly, to me, is that when you dine with your kids at Lotus, the wait staff always ask the kids “how old are you?” At first, you think it’s cute, they’re trying to make conversation. Oh, but no, they’re smart…they’re checking the kid’s age to see how much to charge you. Sneaky.

Anyways, I’ve jumped off the Lotus bandwagon, mostly because I like my chicken without the little “black beans” mice leave behind.

Only 9 more to go…can you imagine my sodium levels?

Monday, July 6, 2009

First, Ed McMahon, then Farrah, and now...

I’m back, after a brief, grief-ridden sojourn to cope with the untimely death of Fred Travelena.

When last I wrote, I was ascending the Chinese food pyramid. I have moved from “underwhelming” to just “whelming.” The Bataan Death March along the Great Wall continues….

Equally whelming as Zheng Garden is “Oriental Pearl”, or “Friendly’s Chinese” as my kids say, since it’s housed in an old “Friendly’s”. All that’s missing is the “Big Beef Cheeseburger” and a “Jim Dandy”. I put OP in the “whelming” category, but it is teetering precariously close to the precipice of falling into “underwhelming.”

For several years, OP was OK…they have a small buffet and the kids liked it. We started meeting other friends there on Friday nights for dinner because it was quick and easy. Unfortunately, we seemed to be the only ones keeping it in business, so they decided to modify their business plan…by adding Keno! Imagine a Friendly’s, with a bar in the front and a small open dining room. Now, not only do we get beef and broccoli, but a side of bar-fly “F-Bombs”. The Keno screens have attracted an element that is less-than-savory for young children. Although the Junior Palette claims that the beef is “really tender” and likes the lo-mein, I don’t like the “f-this” and “f-that(s)”. Since the liquor and Keno is where the money is, the diners are getting short shrift, and because of that, the food is starting to come out like “shrift.”

Next up the food chain, Lotus Blossom in Sudbury, the sister restaurant to Lotus Flower in Framingham. Sadly, LB is trying to be more than it really is, mostly in its price structure. I don’t find anything particularly compelling or off-putting about this place, except the price. One nice feature, that moves them into this category, is that they serve a lot of their food in the old-fashioned stainless steel elevated platform bowls with lids. You don’t see these often enough, but you have little altars of food, with a lid helping to keep the heat in. Props to LB for going old school.

Tied for the best Asian restaurant pretending to be Switzerland is “Lavender”, also in Sudbury; I am neutral on this. I wouldn’t say ambivalence, but I don’t have an opinion either way. I did have one of the worst things I’ve ever had the displeasure of eating-Mala Beef, which came in a pasty curry…inedible. But, it was my fault for ordering it, so I can’t mark them down for that. I’ll have to give it another try because what we did have that was edible was enjoyable.

More coming soon…there were just so many meals…the MSG has slowed me down.