Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Liaoning in Flushing

"Liaoning cuisine," according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture, "originated from Shenyang City and developed on the basis of Shandong cuisine, and was later strongly influenced by the Manchu cooking style and foreign dishes, especially Japanese food, Korean food and Russian food." Having recently tried Liaoning cuisine for the first time, at Waterfront International Enterprises, in Flushing, I'd say that description makes perfect sense.

Frankly, I'd never heard of the Chinese province of Liaoning until several months ago, when I first read about Waterfront International, even though I had visited nearby Beijing and Shandong Province in 1994. Liaoning is northeast of Beijing and borders North Korea. Kim chee is one of the province's Korean borrowings. The waitresses at Waterfront International bring kim chee and peanuts to each table as a pre-meal snack.

My six friends and I started with a couple of cold appetizers. Green bean sheet jelly with mixed vegetables also had some baby shrimp and shredded meat (vegetarians beware). The bean sheets were a translucent pale green, shaped like wide, flat noodles, at once firm and gelatinous. After checking on how spicy we wanted it, the waitress added some mustard oil and mixed it up. Here is where the Japanese influence is pretty clear. The flavor of the dish, the mustard oil mixed with vinegar and soy, along with the cucumber and other shredded vegetables, reminded me very much of the Japanese noodle dish hiyashi chuka, except that the noodles were replaced by bean sheets. But hiyashi chuka literally means "cold Chinese," so influence is a chicken and egg question after all. Our other cold dish was described on the menu as "shredded photo." I didn't think they ate photographic prints in Liaoning Province, shredded, diced or sliced, so I asked my companions what they thought it might be. One smart cookie said "potato," and the waitress confirmed it. Potato in Chinese cuisine is often served lightly cooked and crunchy. This dish had a pleasing crunch and a fresh, aromatic flavor of cilantro and an herb or two I couldn't place.

Green bean sheet jelly (potatoes in the background)

The boiled leek dumplings were quite tasty, but once again this is not a dish for vegetarians as the filling is actually a pork meatball with leeks. The noodles with brown meat sauce, a dish common to Beijing cuisine (cha chiang mein), while good, was not one of the best renditions I've had. The dried tofu with fresh hot peppers, a light, fairly simple dish made with thin, noodle-like shredded tofu sheets, was a hit with most of the table. I liked it well enough, but I wasn't bowled over. Dried tofu sheets were also served as wrappers for the shredded pork with bean paste (I believe the menu said black bean, but it may have been brown bean or soybean), which had a mildly sweet and savory flavor, somewhat miso-like, that I found very appealing.

The biggest hit overall was the crispy lamb with chili. Though flecked with red chili flakes, the dish wasn't particularly hot; spicy Northern Chinese dishes are, in general, not incendiary like some Sichuan or Hunan dishes. Bolder than the chili were the cumin seeds, unidentified on the menu. In retrospect I have trouble believing that seven of us made do with one dish of it, as the tender little lamb slices are pretty addictive. Our leafy greens quota was satisfied with ong choi (Chinese watercress on the menu), sauteed with fresh garlic, well executed, though not a northern specialty.

Crispy lamb

Though we ordered it with the rest of the meal, the last thing we were brought was the "mixed sweet dish." This may have been a deliberate accomodation to what they considered western tastes, as in China this kind of dish is eaten along with the spicy and savory courses. The dish consisted of chunks of potato, sweet potato, taro, apple and banana, covered in a hot, gooey sugar syrup. The chunks are dunked in a bowl of cold water, and the coating becomes firm and crunchy. It's not uncommon to see apples or bananas prepared this way as a dessert in Chinese or Southeast Asian restaurants, but in Shandong Province I had candied potatoes as a main course. The preparation works surprisingly well with tubers as well as fruit.

Mixed sweet dish

What really stands out about the food at Waterfront International is the variety of flavors and textures, and the subtlety of almost everything. The price is right too: with beer our check for seven diners came out to about $110 before tip.

Waterfront International Enterprises is at 40-09 Prince Street (near Roosevelt Avenue), Flushing.


Anonymous Al in NYC said...

Hiyashi Chuka, like most items served at ramen-ya, is considered a Chinese dish in Japan, so I think the influence most likely runs the other way here. I've only been to Waterfront once, and only with 2 people so I didn't get to try much, but what I had I really enjoyed. I love these sort of "mixed" cuisines. Nice report Pete.

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