I put myself in the mood to write this review by listening to a CD of "Speak Mandarin Chinese in a Week." Yes, dear readers, by the time you read this I'll be in Guangzhou, and happy at least three times a day (B, L and D).
Earlier this year, in this column, I asked for readers' experiences with eating Chinese in the area. I'd returned from China in December and encountered some big disappointments. One hostess at a popular spot laughed in my face when I asked for authentic Chinese dishes. A number of you wrote in to root for your favorite places but I decided to go back to China instead.
The New York Times recently gave space even op-ed space to two articles decrying that "Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what's available here ... sweet, rich sauces to coat the food a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home." Food writer Nicole Mones explained that Chinese chefs have a name for what they do here: meiguorende kouwei food cooked "to American taste." Sauces dominate, and are "sweet, sour and a little spicy." Zhongguorende kouwei, on the other hand, food cooked "to Chinese taste," is too varied to sum up in a phrase. It comprises "Eight Great Traditions" and, Mones says, more than 5,000 named dishes.
I've never pretended to be an authority on Chinese food, but after two weeks in China I could tell you one thing about Zhongguorende kouwei: Its dishes are vibrant, packed with flavor, and if the sauces are sometimes oily (Sichuan, Hunan), they're never gloppy and seldom bland (Cantonese), as they are here.
Therefore I was delighted when Chinese cooking teacher Stanley Rosenthal offered to take me to one of his favorite places and do the ordering. (In his day job, Rosenthal teaches art at Wayne State; he'll be giving cooking classes at Royal Oak's Holiday Market within a few months.)
We chose Gourmet Garden from a list of four Rosenthal-approved places; the others are Hong Hua, Golden Harvest (dim sum, and ask for the non-tourist menu) and Shangri-La (ask for the center room). I'd been to Gourmet Garden before and had been let down. The hot and sour soup was not too hot, not too sour. Cold sesame noodles were gloppy and way sweet, even maple-y you could feel your teeth crunching the sugar crystals. Shredded pork with snow cabbage, from the Shanghai section of the menu, was better, but nothing you'd think to order again.
But accompanied by Rosenthal and his wife Kathy, everything improved. We started with a steamed vegetable dumpling (usually street food) from what Rosenthal called "the round-eyes menu." The vegetables were finely minced and accompanied by a flavorsome sauce that combined soy and vinegar and probably minced Chinese pickles. Our cold smoked duck appetizer which I had also ordered my first time out came with a thick layer of fat and plenty of shreds of ginger.
I'd ordered chicken with Chinese basil and ginger before, too, and been unimpressed: The sauce was too heavy, the ginger too sparse. But in the presence of a knowledgeable and acknowledged customer the Rosenthals are well-known to the staff the sauce perked up, the ginger proliferated and the basil infused the dish as it had not before.
Although it was served with boring vegetables, the soft-shell crab with garlic sauce also beat out anything I'd tasted at Gourmet Garden before. The strong flavor was indeed "sweet, sour and a little spicy," but garlicky. It came with a beautifully carved daikon radish, shaped into an orchid and dotted with bits of yellow and rose food coloring.
The best dish was Chinese eggplant stuffed with minced shrimp. The diagonally sliced, egg-sized pieces are deep-fried (seldom the last stage in Chinese cooking, Rosenthal pointed out) and then braised in a sauce involving wine, soy and scallions, among other things. The mild eggplant (softer than Western eggplant) enriched the flavor of the shrimp; the result was decadently rich.
Was Gourmet Garden's food as good as what I tasted in Guangzhou? No. But the secret, as expert Mones puts it, is to "ask for the best 'Chinese taste' dishes on (or off) the menu, and refuse to budge until you get them." Say there's one menu that includes chow mein, moo shu everything and all the familiar dishes, and a second menu that names a specific cuisine such as Shanghai, as is the case at Gourmet Garden. Order from the latter. You don't have to ask for "Large Intestine with Ginger and Scallions," but don't let the waiter talk you out of Zhongguorende kouwei.
Gourmet Garden has two other locations, in Ann Arbor (2255 W. Stadium Blvd.; 734-668-8389) and Rochester Hills (146 N. Adams Rd.; 248-375-7000).
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.