Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Future Choices New York City Entry #19

I have been eating at Chinese restaurants for a half century: every Jewish child's birthrite, our mess of pottage. There are many mysteries in eating Chinese food for those who are not restaurant brats, the offspring of the owners and staff. One that I have puzzled about for decades is what I describe as "menu excess." The question is one of how and why.

A group of us ate tonight at Green Bo Restaurant in Chinatown (most guides call the restaurant New Green Bo, but the menu has dropped the "New." Perhaps they have noticed that years have passed.)

The Green Bo, a highly regarded Shanghai restaurant, has 284 items on its menu, and this figure does not include the off-menu items that are available. Yes, if one ate every meal at the Green Bo for a year (by no means a torture), one would be able to determine one's favorite dish. Each Chinese restaurant provides Future Shock, Alvin Toffler's term for a surfeit of choice. However, unlike Toffler's vision of corporate options, Chinese restaurants provided these abundant options without the prodding of a head office.

Would a restaurant with 117 or 89 choices be scorned as pathetically limited? And how can one select between "Fish Head Casserole," "Duck with Part Tendon in Brown Sauce," or "King Sea Cucumber in Shrimp Seed Sauce." Well, we always do choose, but I often feel buyer's remorse, speculating that the truly heavenly dish was precisely the one that when the moment came to order I decided to skip. Aside from the question of how the cooks produce all these choices (an explanation that many a chef can provide to an ignorant diner), the other question is what a menu of this size is supposed to do for a restaurant. Does the size of a menu correlate with quality? Government funding is required.

This came to mind as I was instructed to make menu choices for our group of six. Eventually I selected nine dishes (five appetizers, four main courses), some selected through the welcome advice of The Chowhound's Guide to New York Tristate Area, a guide with all of the literary charm, organizational efficiency, and quality control of the website from which it takes its name. I appreciate the suggestions, but wonder if I might have done as well using a menu and set of darts.

At its best Green Bo is superb. I found three of our nine dishes memorable. Green Bo is properly known for its soup dumplings. We ordered the dumplings with crab and pork, and they were splendid. Opening each dumpling the enclosed soup exploded with an aromatic tingle. We agreed that these dumplings were the pinnacle of the evening. Also excellent was the plate of crispy eel, looking for the world like a purple haystack of shoestring potatoes - an architectural achievement that any fusion chef might have envied. The hoisin sauce (perhaps with some plum sauce as well) added a sweetness that was quite unexpected in coating the eel. The deep frying of the eel strips made the taste less aquatic than might be imagined, subtle, and perhaps slightly overwhelmed. Our scallion pancake was certainly tasty, although few Chicagoans would choose these crispy pancakes over the canonical feathery version at Ed's Potsticker House.

Less appealing was a cool Preserved Duck. The dish tasted more like cold duck than a dish that had been preserved with aromatic spices. The remaining skin made the dish disappointingly fatty without a distinctive taste. Our aromatic beef was rather tough and less aromatic than I had expected, although the sweet and hot sauce was pleasant enough.

My favorite main course was "Shredded Pork and Preserved Cabbage Rice Cake." Not everyone at the table enjoyed the somewhat gelatinous rice cakes, but I did. However, it was the sauteed preserved cabbage that tied the dish together both texturally and in taste. Also very good was the "Yellowfish with Dried Seaweed," astonishingly light fish sticks that could float away on their own juices. This dish challenges a very few Southern fried chickens for entry in the Deep-Fryer Hall of Fame.

Our Braised Pork Meatballs (Lion's Head) with Shanghai Cabbage was pleasant enough, although lacked a distinctive taste: an inflated sphere of ground pork in a rather bland and thickened sauce. The whole fish Szechuan Style (I didn't catch the species, perhaps it was yellowfish) was mushy with a thick layer of peppery hot sauce. It was prepared with a heavy hand, never a good sign for a delciate white fish.

Every restaurant has its specialities and each diner has favorites, the problem - particularly acute in conditions of menu excess - is one of matching. Eating out is a dating game. But now I have my favorites at Green Bo, and upon my return I know what to order, allowing my partners to explore the remaining 275 options.

Green Bo
66 Bayard Street
Manhattan (Chinatown)

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