In China the test of a chef's skill is his banquet cookery. And the rumor continues in Washington that to get the best Chinese food you must order a banquet. So I tested this theory, and ordered banquets at two of Washington's most ambitious and celebrated Chinese restaurants, Szechuan and Tung Bor. Both charge for banquets by the table, $100 to $150 at Tung Bor, $150 to $200 at Szechuan. And both recommend 10 to 12 people for a banquet.
Tung Bor was communicative and gracious when I called, explaining that for $150 I could order shark's fin soup or a decorated cold plate, while for $100 my banquet would include neither. They recommended Friday or Sunday as the best time for banquets, and suggested a menu.
Szechuan made life more difficult. What was the difference between a $150 and $200 banquet? "Different dishes." What different dishes? "The chef arranges it." Could I talk to him? "He doesn't speak English." I had a Chinese friend call to speak to the chef, and she reported that he couldn't explain the difference in Chinese either. So we took pot luck.
Tung Bor was glad to see us, had the table set with elaborately folded napkins, though the table was a tight fit for 10 people and wobbly as well. The cold appetizer plate was formed into a pheasant, with each slice of meat or egg carved into a feather. It would have been gorgeous if it had been covered with parsley that masked the details, and if the duck's head had not ben coyly wrapped in aluminum foil. As usual, the cold meats did not taste as good as they looked. Crystal shrimps with scallops was the most interesting dish, with deep-fried scallops surrounding large tender stir-fried shrimps with scallions and butterfly-carved carrots in a translucent sauce. The courses continued, one by one, to kung pao chicken (fine), bird's nest soup (tasteless), Cantonese fried chicken (crusty, moist and delicious when dipped into spiced salt), Peking duck that was oddly crusty straight through, with strange tiny squares of pancakes, rainbow shredded beef (hot but dull otherwise), treasures from the sea (nicely cooked seafoods and vegetables that tasted bland after the beef's pepper), Peking ribs (meaty and good, in a sweet-sharp glaze), steamed whole Dover sole (impressive looking and well-seasoned with ginger and scallion, but not as succulent as rockfish would have been) and lovebird fried rice (a mess of rice with two gloppy sauces), lychees and fortune cookies. Most of the dishes were straight off the menu, a few decorated with canned fruit or shrimp chips. And while the quantities were large and the array impressive, the cooking was not to the restaurant's usual standard, and the banquet less satisfactory than individual dinners had been.
Szechuan, after calling to reconfirm the banquet twice in one day, greeted us with a rude, "Wait a minute." We waited in the crowded entrance a half-hour until we were shown to a table that had not even been set. Ten of us jammed into a very small space. Service was abrupt, with utensils and dishes dumped on the table, but grew more attentive as the restaurant crowd thinned. Still, water was invariably splashed all over the table as it was poured. The cold plate this time was formed into nothing more elaborate than four segments of meats, fish and mushrooms, garnished with carved tomatoes as pale as turnips. But the anise beef, mushrooms and smoked fish were bravely seasoned, the most delicious of the cold plates I have tasted outside of Hong Kong. Next came imperial soup, flavorful but not memborable. Peking duck followed, but was rolled into pancakes away from the table so we never got to see it, and could not taste it well because so little had been placed in each pancake and so much hoisin sauce used to mask it. The dishes became progressively spicy, from abalone with chicken and king crab; fried rice with bits of ham, pork, shrimp and vegetables (outstanding), hot imperial shrimp with a pale gingery sauce (excellent); four vegetables molded into a mound (overcooked and too salty, but tasty vegetables); beef Szechuan-style (fine beef in a faintly sweet ginger and garlic sauce); an enormous fish that was beautifully cooked but eclipsed by the thick sweet sauce with too much green pepper. Nothing was garnished, though dishes were served on ornate platters. And the meal ended with a pretty platter of orange wedges, grapes and lychees stuffed with cherries. The menu was well-planned, the food was expertly prepared, but the early abruptness and the crowded seating interfered with the enjoyment. the banquet was not worth the hassle, though I did take into account my fortune cookie, which told me, "Judge not according to the appearance."
Chinese friends told me of Baltimore's Dragon Pearl restaurant, a run-of-the-mill shopping center restaurant where the chef assuages his chop suey boredom by going all-out on banquets. So I arranged a $120 banquet for six people (most are for eight to twelve people for $140 to $150). Our table was set with folded napkins when we arrived. The room smelled of incense, for it is kept burning on a sideboard with tiny glasses of wine and a plate of fruit for good luck. Otherwise, the restaurant looked undistinguished.
First came the cold plate; meats carved and arranged in the shape of an eagle, the effect dampened by soy sauce leaking on the plate, but an inventive design. The ingredients were well-seasoned and tasted even better than they looked. Next came an overwhelming parade of dishes, several of them stunningly good. Shrimp with cashews, mushrooms and snow peas had a remarkable smoky flavor and succulence. Lobster was sauteed in the shell with scallions, onions and ginger; its texture and seasoning were impeccable (in Dragon Pearl's more expensive banquets, lobster is chopped, seasoned and returned to the shell to form a whole lobster again). Duck and abalone soup was merely very good. Boneless chicken in cream sauce was very delicate in flavor, soft and suave. Duck was plainly roasted with soy sauce, the least exciting dish. The star among main dishes was a huge flounder, fileted, its meat stir-fried with vegetables and its entire frame deep-fried so that the bones were crunchy enough to eat. The meat was piled on top of the frame, and the contrast in texture was marvelous as one crunched the bones with the fish. Beef steaks were odd, too-large pieces to eat with chopsticks in an intriguing sweet and sharp onion-tomato sauce. Fried rice was pallid; noodles were extremely dull in a canned mushroom sauce. But the banquet ended on a high note with an extraordinarily good hot sweet almond soup that several guests then requested to take home. In fact, the leftovers made a full shopping bag.
Few of the dishes were decorated in banquet style, but it was a memorable banquet because of the quality of the cooking, with no pools of sauce marring crisp textures, few dishes less than luscious, and an extensive array of foods. Dragon Pearl is beginning to serve dim sum on weekends, the first Baltimore restaurant to do so. With the banquets, it is unique in Baltimore and meets the competition of Washington as well.