Dai Gin Hung To
(Meaning: Wishing one great success and fortune)
Chef’s Cold Cut Platter
Conpoy, Dried Oysters & Pig’s Tongue Braised w/ Black Sea Moss.
Scallops & Geoduck Slices Sauteed w/ Vegetables
Supreme Shark’s Fin & Seafood Bisque w/ Greens
Whole Abalones braised w/ Chinese Mushrooms & Greens
Lobster Steamed in Chinese Wine & Cellophane Noodle
Steamed Fresh Fish w/ Soya Sauce & Green Onion
Crispy Chicken w/ Ginger & Spring Onion
Scallop Fried Rice w/Fish Roe & Seaweed
E-fu Noodle braised in Abalone Essence
New Year’s Pastries
It was the night of the eclipse of the moon. It was ice-cream-headache-cold.
We met in the lobby of a condo downtown. Ten young Asian students and professionals – and me. They are a dining group of sorts, like many such groups in the city. Some of them met through e-gullet, some met through mutual friends. I met The Ph.D. Student via email after reading a piece about her dining group in Taste T.O. She invited me along.
Right away, I knew I was in over my head.
As we piled into a car and headed out to Ambassador Chinese Cuisine in Markham for a traditional Chinese New Year’s banquet, The Diners began a long foodie conversation that was to last into the wee hours. They compared notes on their experiences at Napa’s famous gourmet restaurant The French Laundry, which they referred to colloquially as TFL. They discussed restaurants in Vancouver I’d never heard of, though I lived in Vancouver for ten years. They discussed artisanal chocolate with all the reverence and solemnity of scientists debating the cure for cancer.
The Diners were also charming and sweetly courteous. As the waiter began portioning out small plates of the first of twelve courses, I watched as each person served the person beside them first. Graceful, courteous hands all evening: those of the waiter, sweeping in and out of our circle with elegance; the hands of one of The Diners who kept pouring me tea; hands of The Ph.D Student and The Travelling Gourmand , who took photos all evening with their tiny quirky tripods.
And the food, you ask, what about the food? It was exquisite, challenging, beautiful. I felt daunted by the first dish, Chef’s Cold Cut Platter (pictured above), and afraid to ask questions about what I was actually eating. But The Ph.D. student was unfailingly considerate and provided details about each food item, and some of the traditions connected to them.
The dried oysters were beautifully, smokily intense, unlike any oysters I have ever eaten. Scallops and geoduck slices sauteed with vegetables made me happy with their clear crisp flavors.
I tasted shark’s fin soup for the first time. I adored the whole abalone braised with Chinese mushrooms and greens (above). The lobster was pretty but pedestrian: the only weak note.
The flavours of the meal wound down slowly, with plainer dishes like perfectly steamed fish and crispy chicken. At a banquet such as this, the noodles and rice come at the end of the meal. But, oh, what noodles! E-Fu noodles braised in abalone essence. They tasted like wild mushrooms. I could have eaten the whole platter if I hadn’t been so full.
The Diners were casual about this meal: they often eat like this, at weddings and on special family locations. Loving jokes and anecdotes about grandmothers and mothers and their Old World recipes and traditions flew around the table. It felt uncanny: familiar, and strange.
Just when I thought to I couldn’t eat anything more, The Diners decided to pile back into their cars and go for dessert. We ended the evening in a Chinese desert place located in an enormous strip mall just off the highway. Crammed with ten strangers around a small round table, sitting on uncomfortable wooden stools, I finally relaxed. I could feel the warmth and pleasure that flowed among The Diners. I was charmed by Newspaper Girl’s generosity, as she passed around the artisanal marshmallows and chocolate she’d brought back from California. I liked the way Coffee Dude to tasted the bitter Chinese herbal tea for the first time, and tried so carefully to describe its flavors, as though it was one of the high-end coffees he sells at his shop.
As we left, I gazed at the now-eclipsed moon. It looked vulnerable and beautiful, suspended over the vast expanse of suburb. Like the dinner: an unusual moment, incongruous, surprising, and generous.