Wrapped in a red sheath dress that showed off her slim figure, the bride's mother took her place at the microphone under the ornate coffered ceiling, while guests at three dozen tables looked on expectantly. The DJ launched a drum-and-bass track, and mom started rhythmically spitting syllables, screwing up her mouth and swaying from side to side. "She's rapping!" one of the guests at my table gasped.
We had landed at Pacificana, Sunset Park's largest and most ambitious Cantonese restaurant, late one Sunday evening. While the three-year-old institution is already well-known for its dim sum, virtually no ink or web bytes have been spilled concerning its regular menu. As we climbed the curving stairs to the second-floor premises, we passed a framed picture of the smiling bride and groomshe dewy-cheeked, he a decade older and not quite so jolly. At the top, we paused to survey a vast dining room, austere and almost French in its interior decoration, with little in the way of dragons or the color red. Three-quarters of the room was thronged with well-dressed wedding guests, the rest set aside behind moveable partitions for regular patrons, who craned their necks to see the bride and groom.
The cacophonous wedding banquet provided the best of backdrops for an amazing meal. Cantonese menus have certainly changed over the last 15 years, we mused, going way beyond the usual stir-fries, lo meins, steaming tureens of soup, and pricey whole fish. They strive, and not always successfully, to engulf the entirety of regional Chinese cooking, putting Sichuan, Northern Chinese, and even Malaysian dishes on their bills of fare. Pacificana was no exception, mounting a bewildering 246-item menu.
Typical of the stabs at Northern Chinese was "lamb, bean curd casserole" ($13.95), a meat unknown in more traditional Cantonese restaurants. The lanky waiter held the crock in a pair of white cloth napkins, tipping it slightly to show us a bubbling morass of rough-hewn lamb chunks, bulbous brown mushrooms, wrinkled bean curd skin, slivers of ginger, and slender but pungent Chinese celery. Hailing from an impoverished region of China on the northeastern seaboard, where the inhabitants have a reputation for loving salt and complex spice combinations, "Shandong broth diced seafood snow-pea shoot" ($16.95) featured a dark and savory broth from which a mountain of perfectly cooked greens thrust upward. Pale minced seafood blanketed the top, like snow on an alp. With greens the center of attention, this dish seemed entirely modern in its outlook, like something you'd make after a trip to the farmers' market.
On subsequent visits, we happily continued cherry-picking the regional stuff. From the Hakka minority, who started out in Hunan and migrated all over Southeast Asia, came "Hakaniese stew pork with preserved greens" ($9.95)thick slices of braised pork belly on a damp bed of pickled Napa cabbage, reminiscent of the Japanese stews called nabes. No doubt indebted to the former colony of Macao, "Portuguese seafood baked fried rice" oxymoronically described a massive casserole of rice topped with a thick yellow sauce swimming with shrimp and scallops. Only the Sichuan dishes proved disappointing, lacking not only Sichuan peppercorns, but any heat at all. The Cantonese prefer subtler flavors.
Pacificana's menu also riffs on modern Hong Kong cuisine, an offshoot of Cantonese, using luxury ingredients while incorporating Asian and European elements. Typical is the lead-off on the "House Specialties" menu, steamed Dungeness crab with garlic and sticky rice ($24.95). A large red crab rode atop a mound of gooey and garlicky grain strewn with shredded yellow leeks and cilantro, before being cruelly machete'd and doled out in small individual servings. It was a mess to eat, and the taste did not justify the price. We broke into laughter when "jumbo shrimp royal-style" arrived, ringed with candied walnuts. The most prominent element was a quivering bowl of white mayo for dipping the humongous crustaceans.
If you really want to splurge, skip the Hong Kong inventions and go for the traditional Cantonese whole-fish entrées. Offered with little fanfare on the lengthy seafood menu, pan-fried whole flounder ($22.95) is a miracle of the fryer's art, and crisp with a rice-flour coating. The maître'd sailed over to ceremoniously debone it, and the freshness and clear flavor of the fish was riveting. And why not? It had been swimming in a tank at the end of the room a few moments ago.
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