Not long ago, I found myself delighted by a restaurant in Flushing with the noncommittal name of Golden Palace, serving the cuisine of northeastern China. The owners hailed from Liaoning province, and the food was amazing. Instead of white rice, there were puffy, pale-yellow baos made from corn flour, and dishes dotted with wobbly agaric mushrooms. Such northern Chinese standards as lamb with cumin contended with recipes that scrambled eggs with unfamiliar leafy vegetables. Pig skin in aspic and noodles that were dead ringers for spaetzle seemed to represent German influences from Shandong, another northern province that had once harbored a German “concession.”
So, when a restaurant from Shandong opened just around the corner, whose owners emigrated from the port city of Qingdao (where German-style Tsingtao beer is still brewed), I was there in a flash with a carload of friends. M & T Restaurant is just as anonymous-looking as Golden Palace, and the friendly staff can’t wait to try out their English on you. In the three months that I’ve been eagerly eating there, the menu has evolved, and now the specials once inscribed in Chinese that fluttered on paper strips have been translated.
As at Golden Palace, corn is a surprise component of the menu, represented by “sautéed pine nuts and corn” ($7.99). “I can’t believe I’m eating Chinese,” exclaimed one tablemate, as she eyed a mountain of yellow kernels, toasted pignoli nuts, Kirby cukes, and red bell peppers that might have been mistaken for American succotash. We eagerly anticipated the arrival of the app called “Qingdao cold pasta with special sauce” ($5.95), but “pasta” turned out to be a misnomer for quivering strips of clear agar jelly heaped with crushed garlic and drenched in black vinegar. Carrots are apparently a particular passion of Shandongers: “Qingdao carrot with special sauce” offers the julienned orange root pickled two different ways.
Every visit to M & T proved a revelation. On one occasion, the hit of the evening was a plate of crumbed and creamy pumpkin patties that would have been at home on any Thanksgiving table, while on another, it was a wok brought bubbling to the table with beef and shredded cabbage in red chile oil. (It had been identified on the menu as “boiled beef,” offering no clue to the dish’s unctuous luxuriance.) That same evening, we couldn’t resist ordering something called a beacon roll, which sounded like sushi with a light bulb inside. It turned out that “beacon” was “bacon,” and “roll” referred to the curling of the crisp-skinned pork belly as it cooked. Wreaking more fantastic changes on common ingredients, bean curd skin is cut up like fettuccine in “pepper with bean curd sheets.”
One evening, the waitress sidled up to us and asked, “Do you want to try some seafood from my hometown? No one has it anywhere else.” How could we resist? When it arrived, the sea creature resembled hollow straws in gradient shades of ivory and beige. It had a rubbery texture, without much flavor of its own, except for a certain mild brininess, and came stir-fried with pungent yellow chives. Despairing of an identification, I posted a picture on the Web. A reader e-mailed to say that the specimen was Urechis unicinctus, known in English as “sea intestines.”
While I made a big deal in the Golden Palace review of the apparent German influences on the gastronomy of China’s northeastern provinces, their debt to the cooking of Korea—which lies directly across the Yellow Sea from Qingdao—remains far more profound. In the Korean fashion, slices of cold boiled pork belly, lined up on the plate here like soldiers, are served with a vinegary and garlicky dipping paste, which cuts the sliminess of the snow-white fat, also handily inoculating your stomach against alcohol burn. A more perfect bar snack has never been devised.
What was the altogether craziest thing we tried? The penchant for mixing seafood and meat—the Portuguese are the only other people I can recall who do this—leads to some strange bedfellows. Prime among them is shrimp with tendons ($13.99), but, from the new specials menu, there’s also a dish that marries fish and lamb. On our final visit, we shrugged and ordered “fried pork,” having learned that the most interesting dishes at M & T often masquerade under blasé names. It turned out to be a delicious pork cutlet, pounded thin, soaked in sweet soy sauce, then breaded and fried. “Look, it’s wienerschnitzel!” I proclaimed, serving up flavorsome swatches to my guests.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road.