Lu Xiang Yuan Serves Some Tasty Astroturf
In the past two years, restaurants from China's northeast region—adjacent to the Yellow Sea, across from Korea—have been flooding South Flushing along Main Street and Kissena Boulevard. Counter Culture has covered three so far, but not the newest: Lu Xiang Yuan. As with M&T Restaurant, the proprietors come from Qingdao, Shandong, a coastal city of 8 million that was the site of a German concession (mini-colony) from 1897 to 1914. During this period, the Germania Brewery was founded, where Tsingdao beer is still manufactured today. The city was later occupied by the Japanese, then the Americans, and is now bristling with Korean factories, a history that makes for a potent mix of culinary influences.
The logo of the restaurant is the Xiaoqingdao ("Little Qingdao") Light, a famous beacon erected by the Germans more than a century ago. Inside, the place looks like any modern Chinese restaurant, with ornate paper fans spread on the walls, and strings of orange lanterns dangling from the ceiling. In addition to the food we've come to expect from this fascinating region (lots of lamb and beef, virtually no rice, unusual seafood, and plenty of yams and pumpkins), there are some dazzling oddities on Lu Xiang Yuan's menu.
The dumplings, for example. They're not the familiar purse-shaped pot-stickers, but something called "open dumplings" ($6). Lying side-by-side like sausages in a can, the 10 are rolled like crepes. "This tastes like Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage," one of my friends blurted out, "could it possibly contain sage?" Another mind-boggler was something called "spinach pancake." Would it be a spinach-stuffed pita, further evidence of the Silk Road influence on the cuisine of the region? When it arrived, its appearance was astonishing: The layers of cooked, dried, and compressed spinach might have been mistaken for Astroturf, and the spongy texture made for a very unusual tastiness.
The dish called milk fragrance pumpkin soup ($10) was a porcelain tureen filled with a sunrise-yellow potage. Thickened with corn starch to the consistency of custard, it smelled vaguely of pumpkin, and slivers of white fish meandered in its depths. It tasted great! The soup obviously contained milk, and we wondered if dairy products had been introduced by the Germans to Qingdao. We detected more German influence, real or imagined, in a dish called "red grilled fresh squid" ($12). The thin tentacles—which had a pronounced smoky flavor from grilling—were immersed in a thick brown gravy. Yes, you can find brown gravy in Cantonese food, but this gravy reminded me of sauerbraten.
There's a list of dishes at the head of the appetizer menu that begins with "Qingdao," and it'd be easy to conclude that this is where the heart of the city's cuisine lay. Mainly consisting of seafood tidbits tossed with vegetables in a pungent and dark vinegar, "mussel meat with cucumber" was one delicious example. Thrown on top was a spice powder that resembled Middle Eastern sumac—thick, gritty, and reddish brown, it had more texture than flavor.
As is common in menus from this part of China, the heat comes from a collection of Sichuan dishes that have migrated onto the menu, often sporting blasé names. One such is "boiled beef" ($12), a witch's bubbling cauldron of chile oil with crushed dried chilies in profusion, causing my guests—including singer Imani Coppola—to gasp as the bowl arrived. But as with most Sichuan liquid presentations, you pull the tender pieces of meat out with your chopsticks, leaving the chile heat largely behind.
The most promising dish on the menu was also the most disappointing: "rose fragrant roasted fish" ($28) was an entrée the menu attributed to the Manchu Han Imperial Feast—a three-day, six-banquet meal featuring more than 300 dishes served to the imperial court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the last to rule before the Republic of China was founded. The feast—which might have been conceived by Salvador Dalí—featured such arcana as leopard fetuses, tofu simmered in cuckoo brains, and bear claw with sturgeon, so modern evocations are pale by comparison.
Our expectations were high when the sea bass arrived, bedecked with rose petals like a young bride. The waitress showed us how to eat it by using individual petals to grasp morsels of fish. But a collective groan issued from the entire table as we brushed off the petals and saw what lay underneath—the bass had been inundated with gallons of white mayo. We scraped it off and ate the dull-tasting flesh anyway. Imperial feast, indeed!
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