Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When Really Good Isn't Good Enough

Finding a great restaurant is one of life's supreme triumphs. Still, to every good thing in life there are downsides. Once you do find that superlative eatery the bar is set higher for all others in the same category. It then becomes harder to enjoy a merely really good restaurant, because it doesn't meet the standard set by the truly great restaurant.

This has been my Cantonese problem of late. Ever since a spectacular meal at Flushing's Imperial Palace, with nary a dud among large array of dishes, Cantonese restaurants that should be cause for at least moderate jubilation now invite disappointed comparison. My friends who joined me at Imperial Palace have been victims of the same syndrome. Excellent meals at Amazing 66, in Chinatown, and Phoenix Garden in midtown have failed to wow the Imperial Palace veterans at the table. The diners who hadn't been to Imperial Palace were much happier with those meals.

Of course, food connoisseurship is based, in large part, on wide exposure, taste memory, and sensitivity to culinary relativity. A good Cantonese meal may seem great until you've experienced a great Cantonese meal. That same meal that once seemed pretty damn good will disappoint once you know better (unless you have a tin palate). A wide range of experience within a cuisine gives you a better sense of the possibilities and the pitfalls.

Several times in the past I've taken friends to once favorite Chinese restaurants that had slipped since previous visits. I expressed my disappointment to my dinner companions on these occasions. In general, only the ones who had been there before the slippage had any complaints. Those who had never been there before thought the food was great.

A recent addition to my list of really good Cantonese restaurants is Lucky Eight, in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. I learned about it originally when New York Magazine's Adam Platt kvelled about a crispy chicken with garlic dish. I also discovered that the Times' Peter Meehan had given Lucky Eight a rave review. I was looking for a good Cantonese dinner spot in Sunset Park, after disappointing dinners at Pacificana and 8th Avenue Seafood Restaurant (fabulous for dim sum, though).

I've been to Lucky Eight twice. The first time I went with a group of intrepid foodies who were happy to order some of the more "extreme" dishes. One thing we liked about the Lucky Eight menu was that many dishes were listed in English that I had never seen before, probably because items of their type only get listed in Chinese at many restaurants. Another thing I appreciated was that the waiter didn't try to dissuade us with the usual "Americans don't like" or "Have you tried this before?" caveats. The only warning we did get was that the fish neck was very bony. He was right about that.

It was an interesting dish, the fish neck, and we all went into the dinner with the attitude that an interesting-sounding dish has its own experiential rewards even if the ultimate verdict is to never order it again. The fish neck, which I think was carp, was served in a broth with preserved Chinese olives. The olives had a bean-like consistency and a fairly strong, slightly bitter, slightly sweet olive flavor.

The pig's maw (stomach) with hot peppers had a rubbery, squid-like consistency. Once again, it was more interesting than good. I remember that hog maw was a favorite of Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies.

Two cold appetizers were real winners. The delicious Chinese salami looked like head cheese and had a wonderful black pepper accent; it was topped with crunchy jellyfish shreds. I also loved the subtle flavor of the baby octopus over seaweed salad.

We ordered a dish called Pride of Lucky Eight, which had elicited this ecstatic encomium from the Times' Peter Meehan:

Pride of Lucky Eight, a $14.95 stir-fry, is the signature dish. It comes to the table, sumptuously oily, in a heaping green tangle: some kind of reedy, oniony chives shot through with the white, the green and the bulb end of scallions all separate. Perfectly julienned stalks of Chinese celery add crunch. Rehydrated shiitake mushrooms add a meaty sweetness, slices of meaty abalone a little chew. Bits of baby squid create textural intrigue, and shreds of dried scallop add a depth that's hard to pinpoint but easy to appreciate. It looks as if each element in the dish was individually browned, then thrown together to mask the kitchen's precision.

It is, without question, the finest stir-fried dish I've encountered, and the kind of thing about which I may find myself asking, years down the line: "You had lunch in Brooklyn Chinatown? Do they still serve the Pride of Lucky Eight down there?"

Yes the dish was very good, and he was right about the satisfying mix of textures and flavors, but no, it could not live up to Meehan's hyperbole.

A Hakka-style stewed bean curd casserole was one of the big hits of the meal. I was less thrilled by one of the house specialties, spare ribs with Zhenjiang vinegar sauce. The ribs were short on meat, and the tart vinegar flavor didn't really work for me. The bamboo pith with snow pea leaves was another interesting disappointment. Bamboo pith is a kind of fungus, an odd, crunchy, condom-shaped mesh without much flavor to speak of, outside of a mild muskiness.

We also ordered what we thought was the dish that Adam Platt had singled out. I asked for the crispy chicken and what we got was your basic Cantonese fried half chicken, simple and good, but no garlic in sight or taste.

We all agreed that the quality of the food, and the interesting, wide-ranging menu made for an overall pleasant experience.

I went back about a month later with some friends with whom I dine more frequently, two of whom had been to Imperial Palace with me. We ordered the salami and the octopus appetizers. And this time we got the "right" chicken dish, called something like "house fried chicken with garlic." I liked this very much.

Another Adam Platt recommendation was the Hong Kong Bay lobster. We decided to go for the Dungeness crab in the same style. I found the preparation a bit strange-the hard shells were breaded and the crabs were fried, so one eats the breading off a claw and then cracks away at the shell to get at the meat.

They were out of snow pea leaves, our first choice of green vegetable, so we got ong choi (hollow-stem Chinese water spinach). Overall, the meal was quite good. There was nothing to complain about really, yet we found ourselves complaining that the meal didn't hold a candle to Imperial Palace.

Damn those great restaurants.

Lucky Eight
5204 8th Avenue (at 52nd Street)
Brooklyn, NY

Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Avenue
Flushing (Queens), NY


Blogger Lenny said...

Thank you for wonderful review. Our restaurant has been open since 2007 and we strive to make it better. I hope you still stop by ever once in awhile, as we introduce new dishes every few months(my amateur pictures included).

PS. I'll have to try this Imperial Palace your speak of and see what we are up against.

3:08 PM  

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