UPDATE (Sep. 2013): Early in 2013, Andrew sold his Ming Flower restaurant. Reports from friends are that under the new ownership, the food and service cannot be recommended. Andrew now manages Lucky Dragon on High Street; I can recommend that restaurant.
A Chinese dinner with friends at P.F. Chang’s? That was the chilling prospect unless I could come up with an alternative. The challenge: Compose a gluten-free, MSG-free, no pork dinner for 5 in a real Chinese restaurant.
On Thursday, I went to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants near my home – Ming Flower, in Westerville, OH – and consulted with Sam Mark, son of the owner, Andrew. Sam was very knowledgeable about gluten-free diets. No wheat, no soy sauce (there’s MSG in most soy sauces, and the “G” in MSG is related to gluten). That eliminated so many dishes! Here’s the menu we came up with:
Crispy skin chicken
Fish fillets in cream of corn sauce
King Du pork chops
Jumbo salt-roasted shrimp
Sauteed pea pod tips with Chinese mushrooms
Yang Chow fried rice
Yes, I know: I said “no pork.” Actually, I found out about that restriction on Friday. A quick call and the pork dish was replaced by:
The dinner was a great success. My guests, Tally & Midge Krumm, Herb & Janice Wolman, and I had a great time.
Here are the dishes – some of which we were so excited by that I forgot to take photos until we had already eaten some.
The watercress in the soup was new to my guests. It was tasty, but proved difficult to eat by them. (I pointed out that in Chinese dining etiquette, one may pick up a large piece of vegetable or meat, bite off a piece, and return the remainder to ones bowl or plate.) Tender, thin chicken fillets substituted for the usual pork in the soup.
The chicken was a big hit. The colorful shrimp chips provided a textural comparison to the crispy chicken skin, contrasting with the delightfully moist chicken meat. A squeeze of lemon and pinch of sauteed seasoned salt provided exciting new tastes for my guests, who understood why this is my favorite Chinese chicken dish – one that’s difficult to make at home, since the whole chicken must be fried in a large wok of hot oil as part of the preparation.
The fish fillets in cream of corn sauce was new to even me. I was pleasantly surprised with how tasty it was. The fish, coated in corn starch before frying, was moist and tender, in a nicely chewy crust.
Beef slices were very tender (though Mom would probably object to their being so because of the use of baking soda), and the perfectly cooked Chinese broccoli were nicely crunchy and vibrantly green, providing textural and visual contrast to the beef.
Sam warned me about the shrimp dish: Most Western diners are frightened by whole shrimp with their heads on. Still, I wanted them not only because I enjoy the flavor of the little bit of innards in the shrimp heads (the shrimp equivalent of the tamale in lobster heads), but also because it would provide a good conversation piece. I was right and my guests were good sports about eating them.
The closing vegetable dish provided a comparison to the opening soup, looking so similar, yet tasting so different. Eating the pea pod shoots tips was easier than eating the watercress, since the tips were more tender and by now, my guests were more comfortable using their chopsticks. The reprise of the Chinese mushrooms provided me an opportunity to explain the Chinese belief that any black food in Chinese cuisine is good for you. It’s a belief concurred by Dr. Andrew Weil, who also recommends eating deeply colored foods for their anti-oxidant benefits.
The Yang Chow fried rice had bits of beef instead of the usual pork and was light, yet tasty, going along with the lighter flavors of the rest of the meal. I had forgotten to order a dessert, but orange wedges came on the house – perfect after so much else to eat!
Andrew and his staff delivered our dishes one at a time so we could enjoy each one leisurely and consume much of the large volume of delicious food. Even so, I got to take leftovers home that will feed me for a few meals.
Wines are always a challenge for a Chinese dinner. I brought along 3 wines from my cellar.
The 2006 Sterling Reserve Napa Chardonnay and the 2004 Lucien Albrecht Alsace Gewurtztraminer were both very full flavored. The 1998 Keenan Napa Merlot was nicely rounded. They would have gone very well with a more traditional Chinese menu, in which the dishes would have also been more heavily flavored. But with these lighter dishes, the wines – especially the whites – were a little overpowering. A Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris would have matched the food better. Still, we all had a good time and enjoyed the good food, nice wines, and great company. All this, while accommodating dietary restrictions!
Alas, I was feeling so good about the dinner and the delightful evening we all had that I forgot to ask Andrew to take a photo of my guests and me. Well, I guess we’ll just have to do it again. But I’ll have to challenge Andrew and Sam to come up with another menu within my guests dietary restrictions to stimulate us again with something new.