I started a tradition with my friends a year or so ago called 'family dinner'—we get a group of 20 or so pals together and go hit some unusual restaurants around town (some highlights: an intriguing Shanghaiese dinner at Jai Yun, and a dumpling-fest at Taiwan on Clement). I was recently seeking a location for an affordable and authentic Chinese banquet dinner, and man did pal Patty Unterman hook me up with this one: ~LICHEE GARDEN~.
Lichee Garden is a long-respected Cantonese restaurant that has been in Chinatown for more than 20 years. The talented chef/owner Chak Siu is in the kitchen, and his wife Annie deals with the front of the house. I had once brought a hunky Italian here for his first experience with Chinese food (with all the noodles you'd think Italians would be more open-minded, but no) and another time for dinner with grandma, but I have never done the whole banquet thing. Release the squab!
I came into the restaurant to plan the menu a couple days in advance of the dinner, and noticed the restaurant was totally packed at The restaurant is spacious and clean—it has wood wainscoting, some Asian lithos and art on the walls, plus some plants here and there. The most compelling detail, however, is that everyone was really nice. Like, really nice. I told the manager, Danny, that I wanted the menu to clock in at $25-$30 per person, and did we ever plan a feast, jeez. I ordered a bunch of items that aren't on the menu, so be sure to ask questions about off-the-menu items if you're planning a dinner here. (Thanks for all the tips, Danny!)
The night of the dinner, we had two large round tables reserved with the requisite lazy Susan in the middle. And who was Susan? I'd like to thank her for inspiring such a brilliant invention, lazy or not. For you detail-oriented types: each of the larger group tables can seat 11, so plan accordingly. We also worked out a deal with the restaurant on corkage since it was an opportunity to bring some good wines, like some rieslings and gewürztraminers, plus some reds to boot (here are some of Eric Asimov's thoughts on pairing wine with Chinese food on his New York Times wine blog, The Pour). Rule #1 of family dinner: don't bring crappy wine.
One logistical thing: it was a little hard to keep the wines matched with the cavalcade of food that comes out. One minute you have a good pairing, and the next course, not so much. I say go for beer if you can't deal with it all.
Now, a caveat—this was more of an 'eat, drink, and be tipsy dinner' (each person brought a bottle of wine, you do the math) and less of a 'report the details later dinner' (my notebook stayed home that evening), so I'm just going to share some highlights. We commenced the feast (uh, yeah, 13 courses, coming up!) with the spicy salted squid dish, which was basically Chinese calamari. Fantastic crispy crust. Good heat. Munch munch. We then moved on to one of the house specialties, the minced squab in lettuce cups. Totally delish—the tender bits of squab are mixed in with water chestnuts and pine nuts too, which added texture and flavor. Oh, and for the record, our servers were totally plating each course for us—such fab service.
While rather impressive to look at, I don't think I'd order the whole winter melon soup again—it just didn't strike me as savory as the other dishes. It was one of the biggest melons I've ever seen, I have to give it that. (Some other folks at the table totally slurped the soup down, however.) If you want to try the soup, it does take at least 24 hours notice to order it.
Another dish that requires advance ordering is the stuffed chicken: this is a can't-miss specialty. Seriously—just get your act together and plan ahead so you can order it. The chicken arrived with a perfectly deep-fried and crispy crust, and was stuffed with sticky and moist fried rice studded with ham and scallion—it was quite sublime. The R&G Lounge does a stuffed chicken as well, but the flavor on this one impressed me more.
Another R&G classic we wanted to try here was the deep-fried spicy salted Dungeness crab. I couldn't believe the freshness of the crab—Lichee Garden seriously does it right. But you gotta dig in with gusto on this dish. Yes, your fingers become a greasy and smelly mess, and it's worth every bite. Don't forget about the 'butter' on the crab under its shell—deep-frying does mysterious, magical things to it. I'm coming back just to order crab for dinner one night. Along with a bottle of wine. Will it be weird if I show up with a baguette of some sourdough bread too? Hmmmm.
The house special pork chop was a big hit—chopped up pieces of pork (still on the bone) were shown some deep-fried love, and it came with a tangy vinegar sauce. Thumbs up, way up—even after most of us were waving the white flag, we were still nibbling on this one. We also ordered some classics like honey walnut prawns and Peking duck—total decadence.
My favorite, and a total surprise to me that it was, was the shrimp egg foo yung: a tender and rich medley of omelette and bean sprouts, with fresh shrimp inside. I wish I could have this for brunch—it was silky, and so very scrumptious. Purr.
We also munched our veggies, including some snappy asparagus in oyster sauce, and mustard greens with black mushrooms (I love the funkiness of those meaty mushrooms, other folks, not so much). By the time we made it to the Yang Chow fried rice (with egg, chicken, ham, shrimp, and other goodies) at the end, we were so done. It was like a food marathon, and we were hitting the wall.
We finished up with tapioca made with taro root—I fully had my hazards on by then. Everyone just took random bags of leftovers home—we had a lot. Too much. Next time I will definitely cut some courses out—it was an insane amount of food, but I'm happy to see we champed it as best we could. The servers were impressed. Yeah, if it's one thing you can say about my friends, it's that we don't mess around.
I know I already mentioned the service, but I'll say it again: it's some of the nicest service I have experienced in some time, and hello, this was in a Chinese restaurant. They totally made our group feel welcome and special, and were so very attentive and kind. Those of you freaking out about where to host your company holiday party, and want to try something a little different, this place is for you. Great for birthdays, or why not start your own 'family dinner' tradition with your friends? This will be a perfect place to kick it off, and be sure to tell them I sent ya—they'll take good care of you.
1416 Powell St.
San Francisco, CA 94133