Tuesday, November 10, 2009. A Landmark Chinese Feast.

Written by Tom Fitzmorris November 10, 2009 06:34 in

Dining Diary

Tuesday, November 10, 2009. A Landmark Chinese Feast. Why have we never held an Eat Club event at Trey Yuen? I go there all the time; it's one of my family's favorites. It's not only good but ambitious, easily capable of mounting an unusual and special dinner. Well, we finally got a round tuit today. And it was spectacular. Dishes we've never heard of before were interspersed with old favorites made with super-expensive ingredients.

As preamble, I engaged in nearly three hours of conversation with Tommy Wong, one of the five brothers who own Trey Yuen. All five do everything, from cooking to running the dining room to buying Chinese antiques for the restaurant. But it seems to me each has a specialty. Tommy, who is the most articulate of the brothers, is the mouthpiece. He held forth with me on the radio for most of the show, with the longest exposition of the family's history I've ever heard. Interesting, too. I didn't know they were in Amarillo, Texas before they turned up in Hammond, where the brothers opened their first restaurant in the early 1970s. There their Hong Kong-born father ran a little café that served everything from hamburgers to chop suey. "Those Texas guys loved anything with a lot of meat and rice and gravy," he said.

Squash soup with Eight Precious Ingredients.

We also spent a lot of time on the menu. Some of it I could figure out, but a few items were real flights of fancy. The most unusual was a soup not only served but steamed inside individual acorn squashes. Inside were "eight precious ingredients," as the menu claimed. I can't remember them all, but they included at least two mushrooms that were new to me, a brilliant red date of some kind, lotus seeds, and "bamboo fungus"--a spongy white mass that had a subtle, vaguely fruity flavor. All this was awash in a clear chicken broth, with a short pork rib to add umami.

Before we got to that, though, we started with shrimp lettuce blossoms--a finely-chopped stew of shrimp, mushrooms, and vegetables, along the lines of a dish more often encountered using chicken. (I had it that way on the cruise a couple of weeks ago.) You wrap up the shrimp stuff into leaves of iceberg lettuce, and eat it like a burrito.

Lobster with garlic ginger sauce at Trey Yuen.

After the soup, which appropriately wowed everybody, half-lobsters with ginger-garlic sauce came out. The heads of the crustaceans were stuffed with something delicious we couldn't quite figure out. "Shrimp paste," said James Wong. He's the brother who I believe is the real chef in the family. At least, he's always cooking. "You can't chop it or put it into a food processor," he said. "You have to pound it!" He made hand motions showing how it was done. Whatever the technique, this stuff impressed everybody.

On the side was a lotus leaf folded around "glutinous rice"--a very short-grain, high-protein Chinese rice, steamed inside the leaf. There were areas of the puddinglike mass that were colored with something brown, and there was a vaguely familiar flavor in there. "Foie gras!" James said. "It didn't really work. It melted and disappeared into the rice." I thought it worked just fine, if a good flavor was the goal.

So far, everything was plated and served individually. After that, the food came out in the traditional Chinese family style, with big platters circulating around the table. Tommy told me that the fish truck didn't deliver the fresh black drum they wanted to fry whole for one of these. So he substituted--I kid you not, there was no mistaking it--Dover sole. Big ones, at that. It was fried and cut into morsels, drizzled with sweet-heat choo-choo sauce ("Choo-Choo" is the nickname of a nephew).

And here came a platter of steak kew, an old Cantonese classic that the Wongs routinely make with ribeye steak. That's already far better than the miscellaneous cuts most Chinese places employ for that dish. But not quite as good as what they favored us with tonight: filet mignon. The sauce was redolent of black pepper and right on the money.

Now, honey pecan shrimp. It's a dish people either love or hate. I'm in the latter category. The shrimp are stir-fried with whole pecans that the restaurant candies itself, and then slathered with a spicy mayonnaise. Really! Very strange. But. . . caught up in the momentum of this superb dinner, I found this more than edible. It's not what I remember from other samplings.

Desserts really don't exist in China, but Chinese-American restaurateurs have devised a few. The rice pudding that ended our repast made everyone's eyes light up. What's in this, James? "Grand Marnier," he said. "I usually use triple sec, but for you, an upgrade."

With wines and beer served in unlimited portions, this dinner was larceny on our part. Inclusive of tax and tip, it was $75. They had to have taken a loss. I felt bad about it. Tommy and Frank Wong told me they liked doing it. We liked it even better.

On a more sour note, this Eat Club event followed a pattern that has persisted through most of our North Shore dinners. We had thirteen no-shows. This is why we don't have many dinners across the lake. The people who didn't turn out now are not only on my you-know-what list, but missed one of the most memorable dishes we've ever had. Really unforgettable.

**** Trey Yuen. Mandeville: 600 Causeway Blvd. 985-626-4476. Chinese.