The Real Thing

We hadn’t expected to see her mother again so soon after her parents began their cross-country motor home odyssey, but the death of an uncle occasioned a quick flight back north.  She met her mom at the airport after work, and they traveled together by bus and train to where I could collect them for dinner, a quiet evening, and a hearty breakfast before the next leg of the journey.

It was a beautiful day for travel, the snow staying, as I prefer it, on tree branches, fields, and roadsides, and leaving the pavement clear. The memorial gathering was as joyous as such a occasion can be, and remarkably stress-free for the new guy who never had the chance to meet the deceased. I like her family a lot, though, and they seem to accept me without question though I’m not officially a relative.  All told–even including the odd quasi-eulogy given by the family friend who talked a lot about her dinner theatre career–it could have been much worse.

Her beloved Nana insisted on taking a bunch of us to dinner afterward.  She’d intended that we go for pizza, but the nearby place she had in mind closed early on a winter weeknight. Her second choice was a well-respected Chinese restaurant that everyone was delighted about; it is apparently the only place to go for Chinese food in the area–which is not to say that there are not other such restaurants, only that this is head and shoulders above the rest.  It was farther away, though.  “Just keep going,” her mom said after one turn, “until you get to Vermont.” It wasn’t quite that far, but my geography is not good.

The Plum Blossom is beautiful, with intricate woodwork at every turn. It might become a Buddhist temple if the kitchen ever closes, though from what I hear there’s no chance of that happening. I’m not sure who designed or fashioned the 10-foot-tall wooden flowers–lotus blossoms, I believe–but I’m not sure the artisan would have been pleased to discover that their bases were used as sites to store bottles of sriracha sauce and the sound system’s remote control.

I have never visited China, nor grew up eating Chinese food. My dad hated it, so I don’t recall tasting it until college. I like it now, though I don’t feel like I know much about it. I have a favorite dish, but I understand that it’s completely inauthentic. Although General Tso was a real person, there’s a TED talk and a feature-length documentary discussing how the dish named for him is completely unknown in his home country. I’ve had versions that I like better than others, but General Tso’s chicken is my default choice.  And it was, of course, on the Plum Blossom’s menu.  Still, I looked further.  In a restaurant this beautiful, it seemed like a better idea to choose something “authentic.” (I want to call the restaurant itself “authentic,” but since I know nothing about what an “authentic” Chinese restaurant might look like; the Plum Blossom might well be the Disney World version.) I’ve never encountered a waiter rolling his eyes at my choice, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I looked past columns of …lo meins and …fried rices and with broccolis and so on, hoping to find something that seemed just right.  There’d been a plate of cabbage-and-carrot salad presented as an amuse-bouche: sweet and spicy and altogether delightful, I considered asking of a bowl of that salad with some extra salad on the side, but thought it might not be the most digestively prudent move. Still, if the kitchen turned out something that appealing, I was sure that I didn’t have to settle for a potential eye-roll.

“Lovers in a Bird’s Nest” was high on a list of Chef’s Specialties. Shrimp, chicken, and many vegetables, in a light sauce, served in a “birds nest” made of shredded potato. This sounded pretty, and like it might be everything I was looking for. I chose it happily, with no buyer’s remorse, even as she chose “Dragon and Phoenix,” a two-entrees-in-one meal that included General Tso’s Chicken.  (Or, perhaps I had no regret because I suspected she’d offer me a taste.)

The wonton soup could not have been better: a rich broth surrounding paper-thin dumplings bursting with matchsticks of beef. I had high hopes. I also had another bite of the cabbage salad.

Lovers in a Bird’s Nest arrived–or, more accurately, Lovers in Birds’ Nests: her Nana chose the same entree, which I considered a good omen since she is a regular at the Plum Blossom. It was lovely.  Maybe not quite as color-corrected as a food stylist might have presented it, but it was certainly appealing.

The snow peas, broccoli, and carrots were crisp-tender.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly–which is to say, not a second more than necessary. But the slices of chicken breast were bland. The light sauce was flavorless–cornstarch and water, maybe? The potato nest was pretty, but any idea I’d had that it was meant to be consumed like a hash-brown was swiftly dispatched after I tried to break off a piece. It might have served as packing material for a piece of expensive electronic equipment.

Meanwhile, to my left, her Dragon and Phoenix arrived.  I’m not sure whether the General Tso’s portion was the Dragon or the Phoenix, but it looked fabulous, nothing like the bright orange versions one might find at the food court. She offered a bite. The shrimp side–whichever of Dragon or Phoenix wasn’t the chicken–looked just like the shrimp in my nest, but, oh, the chicken. It was coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of batter, and meltingly tender. The sauce was sweet, spicy, delicate, and not a bit gloppy.

A completely underwhelming chef’s specialty, side by side with a remarkable execution of a dish that wouldn’t be on the menu at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned from this experience, but I am confident what I’ll order the next time we visit. I hope that visit will be for a happier occasion, but even this trip was not maudlin.  There was much laughter. Good food is good whether or not it is ethnically authentic, and a big family dinner is a celebration whatever the reason for gathering.

One response to “The Real Thing

  1. Pingback: 180 | Dinner at the Country House

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