Whenever my birthday rolls around, I love to get my friends together for big group dining experiences where I can plan the menu ahead of time, and pummel them with course after course of delicious and unique food. We've done group dinners at Jai Yun, dim sum brunch at Yank Sing, and thanks to Patty Unterman's always-spot-on advice we had a swell banquet dinner one year at Lichee Garden. When it came time for my birthday this year, I called upon her again for a recommendation, and man, it was the reco of the year: ~FIVE HAPPINESS~. But since there were 13 of us, it quickly ramped up to 13 Happiness, fo' reals.
Patty mentioned a special Shanghaiese banquet dinner she recently had there with local culinary icon Cecilia Chiang, and I was like, "Sign me up!" I called the restaurant, and the very kind manager, Bill Yang, let my group duplicate the Cecilia Chiang meal, with the addition of the #42 Shanxi hand cut-noodles, a dish I had been reading about on Chowhound for a while and wanted to try.
The restaurant had many attractive elements, with carved wood screens, rosewood chairs with carved backs, cool decorative ceiling panels, a fish tank, and I loved the Pepto pink tablecloths. I was happy to learn that Five Happiness has been around for 35 years--that's some good history. The servers were very gracious and sweet, pausing to let me take a photo of each dish before serving it on the table's lazy Susan. And they also let us bring in some special wines and bubblies to pair with the dinner--so if you have some particular wines in mind, you can negotiate corkage.
Okay folks, when I tell you the meal we managed to feast on for about $25 a head, you are going to be inspired to form a posse and head right over. Our meal was stunning: we started with cold cucumber dressed with sesame, so simple, but so fresh-tasting; and then a scrumptious cold appetizer bonanza plate, which included a bounty of lovelies like the "drunken" rice wine-marinated chicken (served cold), five-spice cuttlefish, Shanghai vegetarian tofu roll, chilled jellyfish salad, slices of five-spice beef shank, smoked fish, and more.
Next up, the shark-fin soup. My heart dropped, because it's not a dish I ever would have ordered, and we hadn't discussed it ahead of time. The only thud of the night. I felt so bad. Poor sharks. So, moving onâ¦
We then tucked into some of the tastiest Peking duck. Like, whoa--hold me. The luscious texture and flavor of the duck were quite sublime, with juicy pieces of duck sitting in the middle of petals of crispy skin arranged on the plate like a flower. I was delighted with the accompanying crepes--they almost looked like tortillas with their blistered sides. I've never had that style of crepe with Peking duck before. More please!
Hold on, because we then had the Triple Delight, a savory trio of shrimp preparations (those disappeared fast) and then one of my favorite dishes, a supple and subtle dish of chicken with fluffy egg white that your pour a tiny splash of Chin Kiang black rice vinegar on--what a delight. Everything was presented with such artistry, too. Ooohs and ahhhhs from the table with each dish that landed.
It went on: more cucumber (with garlic); then decadent and jiggling red pork shank (rich like a big portion of pork belly) on a bed of tender baby bok choy; a nest of yellow chives and eel all tossed together with hot sesame oil; a whole fried fish with a red sweet and sour presentation; and the Shanxi noodles. A complete and total culinary tour de force. Sorry my notes are a little vague, but it was my birthday dinner, so I was more about enjoying it all than documenting every last ingredient.
Can't wait to go back for more of that Peking duck (order 24 hours in advance, yo!) and the egg white chicken, and and and...! They also serve dim sum on the weekend (gotta check out their xiao long bao soup dumplings, and Patty is a big fan of their Chinese donuts dunked in soy milk and then anointed with soy sauce), and you know, I just might need to do a tablehopper supper here. The meal we had was that spectacular--I want an instant replay. This place is a gem.
If you go, don't order the generic stuff on the menu--go for the non-Americanized dishes. Just get a group of friends together and see if Bill can hook you up with the Shanghaiese Cecilia Chiang banquet dinner--but pass on the shark fin soup, okay?
4142 Geary Blvd.
Cross: 6th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Banquet dinners: $20-$25 per person