It’s a sad truth of being an adventurous diner that you won’t always enjoy every meal. It’s taken me a long time to learn that this isn’t always anyone’s fault. But unfortunately, it’s inevitable. This past Saturday, my intrepid dining companion/lovely betrothed and I headed out to Flushing, final destination of Queens’s main artery, the 7 train. We ate some great bites – lamb kebabs dusted with cumin and chili from a Uighur stand, fluffy Hong Kong-style buns – and some not-so-great ones, including a $1 duck bao that was mostly soggy cucumber and sticky hoisin. Our dinner also fell into the second category.
101 Taiwanese Restaurant looked appealing from the outside and the inside – filled with boisterous and happy families and promising sanbei ji, “3-cup chicken” on its menu. In retrospect, the first warning sign came shortly after we walked in. The restaurant was absolutely slammed. Those boisterous and happy families were taking up the bulk of the staff’s attention, holding court with bottles of Macallen and whole fish. It took a good 15-20 minutes of meaningful and soulful stares before anyone came over to take our order. One oyster pancake, one sanbei mushrooms, one beef with chili peppers and bamboo shoots. Couldn’t be that bad, eh?
The entrees arrived first – the second warning sign. The sanbei mushrooms, cooked in soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine and presented with coins of ginger, sections of scallion, and copious amounts of basil:
and the beef, presented simply but amply:
The mushrooms actually impressed, initially – sections of stalk with a slight crunchy texture and a rich, slow-braised flavor. But the anisey taste of basil quickly overpowered the dish, leaving my affianced’s mouth numb and me eating the basil like a vegetable. Did I mention I love basil? Our oyster pancake was nowhere to be found, but we dug in regardless. The beef was devoid of the usual garlic/scallion/ginger trinity that provides the flavor base of most Chinese stirfries, and we were left wishing for so much as a cruet of soy sauce to give it some umami depth. Even a salt shaker would have sufficed. I don’t know if I got the gwailo version or what, but it was puzzlingly, frustratingly bland. Once we had picked halfheartedly for a while, the oyster pancake landed.
Now I really should give a mea culpa here. For all I know, this was an exemplary specimen of a Taiwanese oyster pancake. I was expecting something crispy, something browned…anything but the grey puddle drowning in sugary orange goop that plonked down on the table. It was a very subtle flavor, but what really impressed was the kou gan – the mouthfeel. As I later discovered, the primary ingredient of these pancakes is sweet potato starch, The pancake is gelatinous, goopy, slimy – sensations that some people appreciate but I can’t muster any enthusiasm for, unless they’re coupled with truly fantastic flavors. I poked it around halfheartedly and goaded my long-suffering fiancee into trying a tiny bite, trying to convince her and myself both that it wasn’t that bad. It was.
Towards the tail end of the meal, an effusively polite guy took pity on our imploring stares and bagged up our leftovers. I think he was a manager. He apologized for the service and we left with the feeling that at least we hadn’t been maliciously treated. And we weren’t. The beef and bamboo shoots served as an excellent base for some stir-fried noodles once I added some hong shao ruo sauce and a ginger/scallion/chili paste I whipped up in the blender. The mushrooms are still sitting in my fridge, and I probably won’t end up throwing them out, to tell the truth. It could have been worse.
But it could have been much better.