Thursday, December 26, 2002

Chinese exotica

Posted on Thu, Dec 26, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2002-12-26

Ask for Eunice — that's my advice and I'm sticking to it.

True, Eunice doesn't sound like a name that would be attached to a Sino-seafood savant, but take it from me, she is a Chinese firecracker, that one. The diminutive waitress is nothing if not opinionated, and she will have you heading right for the pull-out center of Wah Kee's otherwise altogether ordinary menu — straight to the spicy jellyfish or deep fried pig's intestine, for example. Yum.

In fact, we were already there, zeroing in on the weird, exotic, unusual — as usual. Our first waiter gave up in the face of too many questions, and Eunice was called in as backup artillery; immediately she became our new best friend. Turns out, as is often the case, that many of the menu insert's more offbeat items are only occasionally available due to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the eating public. What's the matter, y'all — spicy pig's belly doesn't get the gastric juices flowing? Spicy beef tripe turned out to be the only challenging item left in the appetizer arena, so of course we leaped right on it. Yum again.

Yum is not altogether inappropriate, as it happens. Served room temperature, the ribbons of tripe (not to be confused with tripas, or intestine) are bathed in soy, sesame oil, scallions, and red pepper flakes. The texture is almost crunchy, the flavor subtle. A little more spicy heat wouldn't hurt, but the overall impression is of the I'd-order-that-again ilk. Call ahead to check on the availability of any of the others mentioned; jellyfish is the most likely candidate. Any of the shark fin soups — chicken or lobster variation — require calling ahead, too.

With its lavender-pink walls, wood wainscoting, and upholstered chairs, Wah Kee exudes a certain sense of swell that wouldn't immediately suggest pig's belly, spicy or otherwise. But the menu isn't limited to offal exotica; there is lobster, for example. Two large fish tanks dominate the far wall, and although one is devoted to neon-toned tropicals, the other is a working model teeming with tilapia and, in a separate compartment, lobsters lazily lolling about. "The fish are easy to catch (net) when there are so many," offered Eunice — which we interpreted as a suggestion to try the whole, steamed fish ($18.95) with scallion and garlic.

But while the catch-and-cook process was going on, there were other suggestions to be heeded. Beef with flat rice noodles was perhaps the most basic of those tried; onion is the only obvious accent to the very broad noodles and strips of sautéed beef, and the result is winter-hearty and satisfying. Not exciting, however. You might not imagine that sautéed snow pea leaves and tendrils would be the dish to turn to for culinary kicks, but its deep, fresh, green color provides a wake-up call even before you take a bite. With cloves of garlic (that might have been blanched to tone them down a tad) and just a little stock as accessories, the dish exemplifies the best of Cantonese cooking; it's simple, subtle ... and, yes, sublime.

Wah Kee's owners hail from Hong Kong — a fact that is only apparent on the menu from the use of products such as buttermilk — but Cantonese (with a little Hong-Kong chutzpah tossed in) is the basis of the day-to-day kitchen, and dishes such as the salted, toasted squid, scallops, or shrimp are great examples. Ever-helpful, Eunice suggested we combine two of the three salted seafood possibilities in a single dish, and scallops and squid got the nod. Don't be misled by the salting — or the toasting, for that matter; the seafood has neither been cured nor thickly coated in salt. Rather, there seems to be a delicate crust that, among other ingredients, combines salt with, perhaps, Szechuan peppercorn to yield a vaguely perfumy quality that suits the scallops and squid perfectly. Onion and sliced jalapeños complete the flavor palette; don't be afraid to ask for a few more chiles.

With a flourish, the fish now appeared on the scene in all of its intact glory. And in the nick of time Eunice also appeared to complete the serving and de-boning ceremony. Tilapia is never going to win prizes for assertive flavor, which probably makes it an ideal candidate for the steaming/frying treatment it receives here. The delicate flesh is complemented by the shredded scallion and ginger that are strewn atop the fish, and the secondary wok-cooking allows for the addition of auxiliary seasonings such as soy, despite which a little additional salt helped emphasize flavors. If there is a meaningful quibble here, it's that the overall effect is a little oily, a condition that didn't deter demolition of the entire platter.

Eunice suggests that next time we need to try the hot pot with garlic, shrimp, and eggplant; the crispy, hot, spicy tofu, no less; and the crab meat with asparagus. "It's real crab," she contends. Real crab being a rare commodity in Chinese — and many other — restaurants, we plan to take her up on it. And then there's always the siren song of spicy jellyfish ...Yum.

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