Traditionally, today (February 22nd, 2016) is the last day of Chinese New Year, and it is fitting that I tell you about a Year of the Monkey celebration I was a part of to ring in the new year.
When internationally renown Chef Bernard Guillas of The Marine Room and Susan Lew, owner of Emerald Chinese Cuisine, invited me to a dinner they’re hosting for Chinese New Year, how can I refuse? My friend and I drive down to San Diego last week on a late afternoon expecting a media-filled event. However, I am surprised to find that the only media is Candice Woo of Eater San Diego — Candice’s family have been long time friends of Susan’s — and myself. The rest? A handful of chef friends Bernard select to usher in the Year of the Monkey. On the guest list are Stephen Lew (Susan’s son); Euphemia Ng of The Marine Room; Jason Knibb, Executive Chef of Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in La Jolla; Jeffrey Strauss, Chef/Owner of Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach; Maeve Rochford, Owner/Executive Chef of Sugar & Scribe Bakery, and winner of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship season two; as well as Andrew Spurgin, of ANDREW SPURGIN™, currently an event planning maestro.
It has been a while since my last visit to Emerald Chinese Cuisine, and I have been there many times, however, I’ve only been there for dim sum and never for a proper meal. I am surprised to see a very different Emerald when I arrive. The restaurant has undergone a complete renovation, giving it a chic modern look. Gone is the carpet, replace with stone tiles and the banquettes are a chic brushed gold combined with dark wood.
We are seated in the private dining room at a traditional round table with a lazy Susan in the middle. With Chinese fine dining, diners do not customarily take food off the lazy Susan. The entire dish is presented on the lazy Susan for diners to admire. Then, the plate will be whisked away and be individually portioned for each diner to enjoy.
Our 12-course dinner tonight is a “journey of Hong Kong classic cuisine with a modern inspiration” paired with wine AND Chinese tea. We are in for a treat. Our meal begins with Appetizer: a medley of dim sum including har gow (金魚餃), siu mai (燒賣), shrimp egg roll (蝦春卷) and vegetarian pot sticker (煎素餃). It is paired with Veuve Clicquot champagne and Oolong tea (烏龍茶).
Possibly my favorite course of the evening is Soup: double-boiled lean pork with cordyceps flowers and wolf berries soup (原味蟲草花, 杞子燉獅子湯). Cantonese cuisine is known for its exquisite “slow cooked” (老火) soups, and double steaming is a cooking technique which retains all the elements of the dish without losing nutrients or components. Our soup is a rich, amber broth infused with the flavors of cordyceps and wolf berries (or gogi berries) which are common Chinese herbal medicines used as ingredients in many Chinese herbal soup concoctions. The “lion’s head” meat ball is tender and light, while the soup is ever so nourishing on the palate.
When the Peking Duck arrives we are all in awe, most of us anticipating with bated breath for what’s to come. It is quite usual for Peking Duck to be served two, even three ways. For this meal, we are enjoying Peking Duck Two Ways (北京鴨兩道菜) paired with Pinot Noir and Pu-Erh Tea (普洱茶).
It is quite a spectacle when you order Carving Peking Duck (片皮鴨). A metal gong is brought to the table and “banged” to alert diners that it is time to carve the duck. The chef lights the duck on fire to crisp up the skin even further. It is then sliced table-side before being assembled onto flour baos (buns) with some scallion, pickled ginger and cucumber.
The second portion of the duck comes in the form of Stir-Fry Duck meat with Bamboo Shoots Served in Taco Shell (炒鴨粒配墨餅) is a Californian take on the traditional style served in lettuce cups. I love the flavors and crunch from the water chestnuts.
Abalone is considered a highly luxurious ingredient in Chinese cooking, therefore, it is quite common to find it included on a banquet menu. Braised Baby Abalone with Asparagus and Seaweed Rolls (鮑魚仔紫菜卷) is the next course, paired with Riesling and Jinjun Mei tea (金骏眉) a Lapsang Souchong. A tender braised whole baby abalone with hints of oyster sauce is served alongside tender pea tendrils (豆苗) and a seaweed roll stuffed with seafood. Everything on this plate connotes opulence, from the abalone to seafood, to pea shoots, a highly revered vegetable in Chinese cuisine.
Another luxury ingredient often featured on a banquet menu is lobster. Live Lobster Stir-Fry with home made XO Sauce and Fresh Vegetables (龍蝦夜宴), paired with Chardonnay and Jinjung Mei, is presented on the lazy Susan before it is served to us. The lobster’s eyes are flashing, as is often seen on suckling pigs at wedding banquets.
I can smell the truffles the minute the dish is place in front of us. I love that Susan has included shark’s fin (another prized ingredient), but has taken the humane route by offering a vegetarian version. Stir-Fry Vegetarian Shark Fin with Black Truffles in Egg Whites Crepes & Jelly Fish (黑松露素翅石榴花拌海蜇) — paired with Chardonnay and Dragon Well tea (龍井茶) consists of two presentations – the sliced jelly fish and broccoli on one side, and the little egg white crepe parcels filled with veggie shark’s fin on the other. The dish is delicate, refined in flavor and the veggie shark’s fin is almost identical in texture to the real thing.
Fish is always included in a Chinese New Year meal, hence our next course is Baked Chilean Seabass in Vietnamese Basil with Mango Sauce (九層塔香芒焗銀雪魚) — paired with Riesling and Dragon Well. Sea bass needs no introduction, as it speaks for itself.
As we gets closer to the end, we have a beautifully hued vegetable dish. Stir-Fry Huai Shan Yam, Mustard Green, and tender Pea Pod (養生准山, 芥菜豆苗蓮花座) — paired with displays the true prowess of a Cantonese Chef. In Cantonese cuisine, the ingredients are the key. Flavors should not mask the ingredients, therefore, it is vital to create dishes where flavors are added to enhance the ingredients in the subtlest of ways. It is clearly evident here. The huai shan yam (nagaimo or mountain yam), and greens are prepared with finesse, allowing them to shine on the plate. Absolutely stunning!
Our final savory course is Foie Gras Wonton in Chicken Broth (鵝肝雲吞雞湯), paired with Pu-Erh tea. The wonton is traditional Cantonese style but the filling is not. The foie gras is again a luxury ingredient, and a rather innovative inclusion. The broth is stupendous, and absolutely spot on in taste as far as Cantonese wonton broth is concerned.
Although Chinese desserts are nothing like their Western counterparts, I tend to prefer them a lot more. Perhaps it is something I grew up with? Or maybe, because of my non-sweet palate?
Glutinous Sweet Rice Sesame Balls Walnut Soup & Egg Tart (焗合桃湯圓露，焗蛋橽仔) — paired with Rosa Regale — is presented along with a piece of “new year cake”which is made from sticky rice flour. We share and eat “sticky” foods during new year to signify families and friends coming together and “sticking” together in the coming year. Hidden within the walnut soup is a sweet glutinous rice ball filled with a sesame paste, again traditionally eaten during the new year for its sticky texture.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving, or Christmas. It is Chinese New Year which has been a part of my life since birth. And although the festivities are nothing like that in Asia, I still try to adopt a few of my family’s traditions such as making tea eggs for the new year. I am honored to have been included in this Year of the Monkey celebration with new friends and old.
If you are looking for a traditional Hong Kong style feast, Emerald Chinese Cuisine is as close to the real thing as you’ll get in San Diego — and even, Orange County. If you’re not in the market for a banquet, stop by the restaurant for a casual Cantonese meal, or simply dim sum. You’re not going to find many places hand making dim sum anymore – not even in Hong Kong.
Emerald Chinese Cuisine
3709 Convoy St #101
San Diego, CA 92111