While I can wrap a nem or suck up seaweed with the best of them, I occasionally get a yen for the simple Chinese cuisine that began most Americans’ Asian odysseys. Born too soon to have grown up with dinners served from white cardboard boxes, I experienced my Cantonese epiphany years later, when a restaurant opened on West Broadway in the early days of Soho chic. It boasted scrubbed golden oak tables on multiple levels, brick walls, and enough pizzazz to provide my first brush with urban sophistication. Menus noted that MSG was used only upon request, the jukebox played a mix of everything from r&b to jazz, and the bar poured heavy drinks. The tastes of barbecued spare ribs, plum duckling, and braised fish with ginger and scallion became part of my youth.
During a recent business lunch, when my copy editor and I hurried through the double glass doors of A Dish of Salt, the place seemed strangely familiar. The multiple levels, the brick walls, and the antique polished wood tables all reminded me of the Soho spot whose name I’d long since forgotten. We had other things to talk about, so I put the nagging sense of the familiar aside and ordered, collaborating on a plate of honey-glazed barbecued pork ($6.50) for starters. The mildly chewy petals of thinly sliced tenderloin in a star anisescented ‘cue were perfect for the dentally challenged. My blue-penciling friend continued with a chicken special ($23), half a fried bird deboned, sliced, and served in a thick ginger sauce. I selected steamed sea bass with ginger and scallion ($25), which proved a creditable rendition of the classic. A fragrant pot of chrysanthemum tea ($2.50) rounded off the meal. Only as I headed home did I return to pondering the exact name of the Soho forerunner where I’d first encountered these now-comforting pleasures.
By the time I returned, I’d hounded several friends with no success. My sense of déjà vu even stronger, I was still wondering as I sat and waited for my friend to arrive. I kept searching for the name as I gazed at the gargoyles peering down at me from pillars and peeked out at the street through the potted palms. Time passed. I nibbled on a reprise of the pork petals and listened to show tunes on the piano. As it became increasingly obvious that I’d been stood up, the maître d’ took pity and engaged me in conversation. He was my contemporary, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask whether there was a connection to the remembered Soho spot. Three syllables and bingo: Oh Ho So. Two restaurants, one restaurateur. Memory restored, I reviewed the menu and saluted the past with a braised flounder covered with my favorite Asian seasoning trinity ($22). Wisps of scallion mounded with julienned fresh ginger atop the pan-fried, soy-soaked fillet combined to create a dish that was truly memorable, even for me. A citrus-dressed mess of mesclun enhanced with mango slices and melon balls provided roughage, while sesame broccoli, florets napped in a gelatinous ginger glaze and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds ($14.50), added crunchy counterpoint. By the time I’d finished a second Tsingtao and my chrysanthemum tea, I was awash in reminiscences. My friend called the next day; she’d forgotten. It seems I’m not the only one with memory problems.