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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tai Lake - Fresh food is the best food.

I am fortunate to have friends on the right email lists, and recently managed to wedge myself in (literally, the seating were pretty tight!) at a special meal at Tai Lake in Chinatown.

Many thanks to Ross for putting this together, and selecting the menu. The concept was "Fresh food is the best food" and therefore, we'd be eating things that were so fresh that they were alive until just before preparation. There are many places in Chinatown with tanks of live fish and shellfish, but Tai Lake has one of the widest selections, and offered some exotic ingredients that are a hard to find anywhere else.

Snake Soup

OK, the snake was not alive and wriggling in the restaurant, so this was one of the few exceptions to the rule, but the unusual ingredient still seemed to fit in with the rest of the menu. The soup was quite good, although not all that exotic-tasting. You know the old cliché about everything tasting like chicken? Well, it's kind of true with snake... Still a very enjoyable soup, and even better with a little splash of red vinegar, and the fried crunchies that were suggested as condiments.

Steamed Oyster with ginger and scallion

Tender, yet meaty oysters from Tai Lake's tanks were huge, I'd say about 5 inches in length. I've come to be fonder of smaller oysters, especially for eating raw, but in this cooked preparation, the larger ones worked quite well, even if it took a few bites to finish them.

Geoduck sashimi

This large clam from the Pacific Northwest, sometimes called an Elephant, or Elephant trunk Clam on Chinese menus, due to its long, large siphon. You may see it called mirugai in Japanese sushi bars. That siphon was thinly sliced, and served as sashimi, the belly of the clam was served later in crispy salt-baked style. The sashimi was very subtly sweet, with a pleasing resilient texture. (The geoduck is the whitish thin slice, the pink stuff is ginger.)

Broiled Eel

One of my favorite dishes of the night, the eel was a little crispy on the outside, but meltingly tender inside.

Dungeness Crab with XO sauce

The crab was light and sweet, picking up a little spice from the seasonings on the shell, and some salty, fatty richness from the porky XO sauce. Even large crabs like these are a lot of work, but the reward was sufficient to justify the cracking and prying and sucking.

Salt & Pepper Frog and Geoduck Clam Belly

This version of the clam was almost as good as the sashimi course, putting to shame the classic New England fried clam platter! The frog was tasty too, but after having this a couple of times now, I've decided that it's just too bony for me. The flavor is good, and it has a delightful crisp exterior, but those little frog nuggets are loaded with small, sharp bones, and eating around those, and inevitably picking some out of my mouth just detracts too much from the enjoyment.

Sautéed Snow Pea Greens

This was the other exception to the freshness rule: it probably was not still growing moments before the dinner, as most everything else was, but it was still pretty recently-picked, I'm sure, it was so sweet and vividly-flavored. I'm really happy to see these greens widely available now, it used to be hard to find them, or at least required making a special request.

All in all, a very interesting, and enjoyable meal. It introduced me to a few new dishes, and reminded me that Tai Lake offers some different and exciting possibilities. There are tanks in several other places around town, and one can often spot eels, frogs, and other things beyond the typical fish, so next time, try one!

Thanks again to Ross, and our other dining companions, many of whom were from the local Slow Food crowd.

Tai Lake
134 N 10th St
Philadelphia, PA 19107-2309
Phone: (215) 922-0698

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