Friday, August 15, 2008

An Olympic Appetite, by Celest

lrg-385-olympic_logo_beijing_2008I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage. During the boring sports, like water polo, I’ve been shopping for gym wear online. I feel certain that the $400 investment in Stella McCartney-designed Adidas workout clothes will soon make me a regular at my gym again. But I’m gonna wait until it arrives in the mail to start a workout routine because right now, I’ve got all this sports TV to watch! Besides, I really feel more athletic when I see those gymnasts tumble around and watch the rowers sweat bullets. It’s like I’ve been through a grueling workout myself. And it makes me really hungry.

Like my best friend, I’m not the greatest admirer of Chinatown. I find it really intimidating, both on the street level and inside the fluorescent-lit restaurants. In Texas, I didn’t grow up eating Chinese food. Like, I never ate it. I think my first experience with it was in college, when Sara was on her “Steamed Broccoli and Fat-Free Gummy Candy Only” diet. She’d propose ordering in as a treat from the NYU cafeteria, and I’d figure I could find something on the takeout menu that was at least as good as the cereal and scrambled eggs I’d be eating for dinner if we swiped our cards at the dining room at Weinstein Hall. I quickly learned to like chicken lo mein, chicken fried rice, vegetable spring rolls and little else on offer at Peking Chef. At nineteen, my palette was underdeveloped and overly picky against most Asian flavors. At that time, I’d never eaten Tai, Vietnamese, Korean or sushi. And I could not fathom the value of dairy free cuisine. (Food with NO cheese? Why?!) Honestly, I still have a problem with this part. And Chinese is still generally my least favorite of all Asian cuisines.

But all this Olympic coverage has really given me a craving for some Chinese chow! So when my On Again/Off Again asked me where I wanted to eat Saturday night, I said I wanted Chinese and he, startled, asked me if I’d started my period or something. I explained the Olympics-driven craving and he suggested Chinatown Brasserie (knowing it was exactly what I was after—pseudo Chinese, more than a little Americanized, good cocktails, and with a real dessert menu. None of this fruit-, or bean-curd-for-dessert bullshit.)

The size and glitz may qualify the place as a “theme” restaurant, but I still think it is drop dead gorgeous in there. Giant Chinese lanterns, black lacquer everywhere, Chinoiserie wallpaper…stunning. We started with drinks at the bar. Even my Normally Abstains couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a frozen Mai Tai on a balmy summer night. It was good, though not as good as the one at The Rusty Knot. I sipped prosecco despite being tempted by cocktails such as a Kiwi Gimlet or a margarita made with fresh honeydew.

2006_07_chinatownWe were given a fantastic table despite our lack of a reservation (twenty minutes earlier I’d been in my bathrobe riveted by some qualifying round of women’s sculling), and the service was really smooth from there on out. The menu is divided and grouped—brasserie style—into specialties (including Peking duck: $48), entrees, accompaniments, and dim sum. As we perused, we were brought an amuse bouche of a tiny fried shrimp roll with Chinese mustard. Then, we happily ordered like novices: a barbecued duck roll, chicken and pine nut lettuce wraps, vegetable fried rice and Szechuan chicken & shrimp with spicy hoisin sauce. They were mostly solid choices. The barbecue dipping sauce with the duck roll was sticky and sweet, with a great peanut flavor. The wraps were crisp and satisfying since the sautéed meat mixture was so crunchy and wonderfully seasoned. The chicken and shrimp were sufficiently spicy for Him and nicely moist. But without enough oil, and with peas that were shrunken and dried out (particularly troubling, since they are in season now), the fried rice was the single disappointment. Surprising, since it’s seemingly so basic. I squealed a little when they brought the dessert menu; it’s often my biggest letdown at an Asian restaurant. I was thrilled at the ice cream dessert options, including ice cream sandwiches and a hot fudge sundae. But we decided on the frozen peanut butter mousse, since I’d recently lamented the lack of semifreddo—the Italian version of a semi-frozen mousse, which I love—on most menus these days. This mousse had a wonderful, salty flavor, but it was too hard, suggesting it should have been removed from the freezer fifteen minutes earlier, and it sat atop a disappointingly flavorless chocolate cookie. No matter, it was a cold, creamy way to end the meal.

Though the five block walk to Solex for an after dinner drink constituted my entire day’s exercise, I felt healthy. A dinner with lettuce as a main component, shared dessert, just two glasses of wine…
If only dining were a competitive sport. I’d be excellent at training.

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