1416 Powell St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
14, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO
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~.
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
came into the restaurant to plan the menu a couple days in advance
of the dinner, and noticed the restaurant was totally packed at
lunch with folks chowing down on dim sum—note to self to return.
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,
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,
Pour). Rule #1 of family dinner: don't bring crappy wine.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.