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Friday, April 17, 2009

Han Dynasty in Royersford -
A Feast for 15

We were thrilled to hear that Han Dynasty in Royersford was being reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which should garner it some well-deserved attention. A few devotees, myself included, have been spreading the word about this restaurant (and its original outpost in Exton) as much as possible, but even with the reach of the internet, we could never hope to compare to the impact of a review by Craig Laban. His reviews in The Inquirer are very widely read and respected, and introduce many people to new places every week. We're really happy that he liked Han Dynasty enough to want to write about it, and very gratified to learn that at least one element in encouraging him to check it out in the first place was our crowd's discussion of it on the food discussion board eGullet.

I wrote about my first visit to this second outpost of Han Dynasty in this earlier post, but just realized that I had failed to update this blog with documentation of a rather extravagant group dinner we threw there back around Chinese New Year's. That holiday was an excuse to get people together, but it wasn't a traditional New Years banquet, it was more just a big group of friends sharing a lot of food!

We put ourselves in the hands of Han, which is always a good plan. Just let him know what you like and don't, and let him bring you what he thinks you should have. You might be surprised, but we've found that those surprises are almost always happy ones.

Most of these dishes are available regularly at the restaurant, but a few were specials, so don't be too surprised if any given item isn't available when you go. And do check the specials menu, there are always a few new interesting things on there.

The short review of this dinner is that we liked everything. That sounds like a cop-out, like we're being undiscriminating, but I just think Han made strong selections for us that worked very well. If we had any complaints, they were circumstantial: we had a couple of vegetarians in our group and so the kitchen kindly left meat out of the green beans and the Ma Po Tofu, which made them accessible to all. This was a compromise we were willing to make, but the omnivores missed the ground pork that usually perks-up both of those dishes. And although some of the dishes packed a serious chili kick, a few of them were clearly toned down for the sake of wider appeal, again a compromise that we're willing to make when sharing among 15 people! If you go with a smaller group, it's easier to customize things to your preferences.

We started with a Fish and Pickled Vegetable Soup

Sweet Potato Cakes

Dumplings in Chile Oil

Sliced Beef and Tripe in Hot Sauce (cold)

Spicy Rabbit with Peanuts (cold)

Chengdu Style Green Bean Noodles (cold)

Shredded Chicken in Spicy Sesame Sauce (cold)

Spicy Hot Pot (with fish, shrimp, scallops, beef, noodles, tofu, vegetables, probably more treasures that I didn't manage to find...)

Sweet and Sour Fish Filet

(no, it's not always served with the carved carrot sculpture!)

Smoked Bacon with Leeks

Tea Smoked Duck in Beer Sauce

Szechuan Style Sea Bass

Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp

Three Cup Chicken

Fish in Dry Pot

Stir-Fried String Beans

Chicken with Dry Hot Pepper

Ma Po Tofu (missing photo)

Taiwanese Sausage with Snow Peas

Deep Fried Shredded Beef

Bok Choy with Black Mushroom

Lamb with Cumin

Braised Bacon

Sesame Dumplings

As you might guess, even though there were 15 of us, we left stuffed, and carrying a decent portion of the food home with us. Even with a smaller group, you wight want to use this model: just ask Han to select a balanced array of good dishes and see what you get. If you're bringing a large group, or would like something special, call ahead, and you might find even more rare delights being presented. You certainly can ask for certain things if something catches your fancy, but you'll do much better here if you keep an open mind.

One warning though: some of these dishes are seriously hot, and others have that unique Sichuan blend of heat and tingling, numbing sensation called "Ma La." It's very attractive to many people, even addictive, but can be a bit too much for others, or at least an acquired taste. So be sure to let your server know if you want your food full-on-traditionally spicy, or if you'd like to venture in more gradually.

Personally, I've become addicted to the spice. A few dishes, like the deep-fried shredded beef pictured above have a cumulative spice level that I can barely tolerate, but I can't stop eating them, and I find myself drawn back to the restaurant specifically for those dishes. A good beer makes a pleasing companion, one with a little sweetness seems even better.

Even if you're not a fan of spicy food, there are many things on this menu for you, just ask your server. Just be a little daring and try some traditional dishes, not the same old stuff that you can find at the Americanized places everywhere. Instead of General Tso's Chicken, try the Triple Delight Chicken (AKA Three Cup Chicken). Sure, it has bones in it, but it also has tons of flavor. The Tea-Smoked Duck has deeply complex flavor and an incredible texture, whether served plain or in a beer-based sauce. The Smoked Bacon and Leek has no chili heat, and isn't quite as decadent as it seems. OK, maybe it is pretty decadent, but it's also delicious, so skip the bacon for breakfast next time and get your diet back on track.

If your group is not feeling confident enough to dive into the deep end, go ahead and order some familiar things, but get at least one or two dishes you've never had, but that sound good. But another warning: your local strip-mall Chinese take-out place might start seeming pretty blah...

Han Dynasty (2)
70 Buckwalter RD
Royersford, PA 19468

and the original:

Han Dynasty
260 N. Pottstown Pike
Exton, PA 19341

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sakura - Regional Chinese, and Sushi too

Sakura is a restaurant with multiple personalities. One might think from their name that they're a Japanese restaurant, but although they serve sushi, their main focus is on Chinese food. To add another layer of complexity, they serve Chinese food that draws from many parts of China. There are dishes that are typical of Shanghai, some from Sichuan, northern dishes, and the broad selection of Mandarin style typically seen in Beijing.

We chose to concentrate on the Chinese side of the menu, we're still a little unsure about the combination of Chinese food and sushi, we tend to want one or the other, not both at the same time. There's plenty to choose from on either side of the menu, so that was no hardship.

Even though we were concentrating on Chinese, they wanted us to try the special "Wasabi Roll" and kindly sent one out for us to try. It was filled with tempura shrimp and dressed with four sauces. My tablemates all said this was not the kind of sushi they normally order, but admitted that it was tasty!

We started the main meal with Shong Shao Fish Soup, which had a nice thick texture, tender fish, and a bright, complex herbal flavor.

The Scallion Pancake showed no evidence of scallions, but we didn't care, it was a wonderful version, very light and flaky, with many layers, the top adorned with sesame seeds.

House Shrimp were well-liked at the table.

Diced Chicken with Hot Pepper had some serious spiciness.

As did the Baby Shrimp Sautéed with House Spicy Sauce

The Braised Pork Shoulder is a favorite from Shanghai, with a deep, sweet glaze over the luxuriously fatty meat.

Lion's Head is another popular dish from Shanghai, and these baseball-sized meatballs were a flavorful version, despite being just a touch dry. The delicious sauce and braised bok choy compensated nicely.

Sautéed Water Spinach was bright and tender, the hollow stems of the vegetable soaking up the garlicky sauce.

Shanghai Pan-Fried Udon had a great texture from the large, firm noodles.
Steamed Fish with Ginger and Soy was very nicely done, featuring delicate fish, just barely cooked, flavored with a thin but flavorful sauce.
Chicken in Rice Wine Sauce was a favorite around the table. The cold chicken had picked up a pleasingly boozy, sweet flavor from the marinade, and its time in the wine had tenderized it perfectly.
Shanghai Marinated Duck was another cold dish with vivid flavors from a complex dark marinade.

We'd asked if they had any pickles, and these preverved vegetables had a bright sour kick that went well with many of these dushes,

For dessert, they sent a delicious sweet soup with tender tapioca and a touch of wine.

And finally, Banana Tempura. Warm, crunchy, sweet... what could be wrong with that?

Overall we thought the food was very good, and we're thrilled to see more regional Chinese on menus here. It's a big country, with many different traditions. Shanghai-style is represented well here, in fact we recognize some staff from Dim Sum Garden which also serves excellent dishes from Shanghai.

We're still not sure they need to serve sushi here, the menu is already very diverse, but I'm sure they'll find out whether there's a demand for it in this context. We'll be back to explore more of the menu, we barely scratched the surface, and who knows, maybe we'll even feel like some maki too...

1038 Race Street (on the corner of 11th Street)

(website under construction)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Awesomeness Alert - Cocktails and Charcuterie at James

Update: sadly James has closed, and the chef has moved to NYC... 

The restaurant James has gotten its share of recognition as a destination restaurant for modern Italian food, a place to go for creative pastas like duck ragu with bitter chocolate and orange, Dover Sole with an egg on top, or perhaps to indulge in a tasting menu. We never think of it as a place to drop in and have a drink, maybe have a bite at the bar.

It turns out we should.

First: the cocktails are delicious. There's not a long list of them, but the specialty cocktails on the menu are quite interesting. The bottles at the back of the bar are high-quality, but not especially numerous, so the options may be more limited than at other cocktalian destinations around town, but the drinks they make are worth a trip. The Cava Cocktail '88' seems like it might be sweet and innocuous, but after an initial hit of fruit, the dryness of the sparkling wine rolls back in, the complex overtones from peach bitters lingering on the palate. Unexpectedly deep for something so pretty.

The Tommy Gunn mixes Tub Gin and absinthe with a touch of lime for a drink that's resiny, piney, herbal, and unexpectedly refreshing. This might just be the summer drink to beat. Served in a big old fashioned glass, it's one of those concoctions that evolves slowly over time, as the temperature changes and the slow dilution from melting ice alters the balance of power.

Despite the comfortable bar and inviting lounge area, James is a restaurant, and it would be a shame to ignore the talents of chef James Burke. There's a smallish bar/lounge menu, but they seem happy to serve selections from the main menu as well, even if you're sitting at the bar. This is one of those bars that's comfortable to eat at, and our bartender was every bit as informed and helpful about the food as the regular waitstaff, so there's little downside to eating at the bar, especially if you're a party of one or two.

The first thing that caught our eyes on the bar menu was the house-made charcuterie platter. It's becoming increasingly common to find interesting charcuterie or salumi in Philly, and in more and more places, some or all of the meats have been cured in-house. We're big fans of the salumi at Osteria, and we recently had a very nice selection of homemade charcuterie at Fork, so it's only after careful consideration when I say that this might be our favorite plate of preserved meats. I'm sure which specific items are included will vary over time, but we got two terrines, one made from rabbit, the other from pork. Duck prosciutto has become almost mundane around here, but this version was especially intense and tender. Porchetta, Sopressata and Rillettes filled out the plate, which was also adorned with two homemade mustards and a fennel mostarda. Accompanying was a dish of three pickles: ramps, radish and tiny cucumber, each marinated in a different brine. Each element was very good, but taken as a whole, it became our favorite charcuterie platter in Philly.

It could be all about the pickles...

824 S. 8th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147