as we were eating dim sum lunch at Yank Sing (San Francisco), “if I had to chose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese.” I think she is on to something.
The flavor combination of soy, sesame, garlic, and ginger is one of my favorites. But I am equally intrigued by the textural and flavor contrasts that well-prepared Chinese food presents. Or, what I (admittedly no expert in Chinese philosophy) call the yin and yang. About.com discusses yin and yang thusly: “People commonly think of yin and yang as opposing forces. However, it is really more appropriate to view them as complementary pairs...A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found in any Chinese dish, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in color, flavors, and textures…It also reinforces that it is not so much the individual ingredients, as balance and contrast between ingredients in each dish, that is important.”
The two types of restaurants I “Google” wherever we go are pizzerias and Chinese restaurants. And good restaurants in both categories are hard to find. So when I read the on-line menu for Ginger Café in Gilroy, CA (“Garlic Capital of the World”) and saw that they offered a wide range of small plates, I knew we had to give it a try. And, on our first of three visits, 60% of the tables were occupied by diners of Asian origin.
“Ginger Cafe’s distinct style of cooking has its roots in history. Years of migration by ethnic Chinese brought their food into various corners of the globe, where it mingled with local ingredients, predilections, and cooking techniques. As Chinese immigrants moved ever westward, their cuisine acquired a distinct personality. While Ginger Cafe’s menu is rooted in the Chinese culinary tradition, it is broadened, flavored, and inspired by its ‘travels’ through the Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore" (from the Ginger Café’s web site).
The café is located in a strip mall near the Gilroy outlets, and its bare and lackluster exterior gives no hint as to what is inside. Once you are past the front room, you enter a stylish dining room that combines modernity with warmth. The walls are painted a soft gold which contrasts with the black tables, chairs, and ceiling.
An inventive use of bamboo shades visually lowers the high ceiling and provides a Far Eastern mood.
Above the banquette that lines one wall are a series of shadow-boxes, each containing a lighting sconce.
From a lunch menu with over twenty “small plate” or dim sum choices, it was hard to make a decision. We finally decided to order three small plates – Pan Fried Leek Dumplings, Shrimp Puffs, and Mu Shu Chicken Rolls – and one lunch entrée – the Dry Sautéed String Beans with Chicken.
With the lunch special came a cup of the day’s soup – Hot and Sour – and with any dim sum order you can add this same soup for just $1.00. I was beginning to second guess our restaurant choice when the soup arrived. While it was certainly hot and certainly sour, it was sorely lacking in “stuff.” What stuff, you ask? Stuff like pork shreds, tree ear, tofu, lily buds. This was basically a very tasty broth with some egg threads, carrot slivers, and chopped scallions.
But when the dim sum began to arrive, my attitude abruptly changed. This place was really good. The Pan Fried Leek Dumplings contained leeks, shrimp, and pork and came shaped in a wheat starch skin, which, when fried, took on a light brown crispness. The soft sweet leeks were texturally balanced with the three to four crisp baby shrimp in each dumpling.
The Shrimp Puffs (shrimp and pork in a wonton skin) were deep-fried to a crisp. Each dumpling contained a bountiful portion of chopped shrimp and the dumplings were accompanied by a sesame based dipping sauce.
Our final dim sum choice--the Mu Shu Chicken Rolls–-was a mammoth serving of food, which, if paired with a cup of soup, would make a filling lunch. Each roll was spread with hoisen sauce and contained chicken, cabbage, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and egg. Again we had a texture contrast with the crisp cabbage and bamboo shoots being balanced by the soft chicken, mushrooms, and egg.
The list of lunch specials offered many possibilities. There was: Basil Chicken (stir-fried chicken with garlic, bamboo shoots, shitake mushroom, basil, and scallions); Mango Chicken (mango, cashews, chicken, and basil in a coconut sauce); Curry Chicken (chicken, eggplant, onions, mushrooms, green beans, and coconut milk in yellow curry sauce); Kung Pao Chicken (that Chinese restaurant staple); Mongolian Beef (another Chinese restaurant staple); and Tamarind Jumbo Prawns.
All of these sounded wonderful, but, as I said in my review of Hunan Home’s in San Francisco, I judge a Chinese restaurant by their Dry Sautéed String Beans. And this was a different take. Instead of the minced pork that you frequently find in this dish, Ginger Café used thin chicken slices. And, while I wasn’t in the kitchen looking over the chef’s shoulder, I swear that they used a technique often used in Chinese cooking – velveting.
Velveting is simply coating the slices of raw chicken (this is also often used with shrimp) with a mixture of egg white and cornstarch. Sometimes rice wine and sesame oil are added. The chicken is left to sit in the marinade for about a half an hour and then drained. What this does to chicken is nothing short of a miracle. The small thin pieces of chicken remain moist and tender under the extreme heat needed for a stir fry.
So, here again, we have the yin and yang. The beans are still crisp but are not raw, and the chicken is soft and tender. Toss this with a spicy bean sauce and you have a marriage of textures and flavors.
We enjoyed this lunch so much that we returned for two other visits during our stay in San Juan Bautista. A review of these follow-up lunches will be forthcoming.