Americans obviously love food. But as a culture, we’re not quite as comfortable with embracing the source of the animal protein we consume as many other parts of the world are. Our supermarkets feature cuts of meat in foam trays wrapped in plastic. As a rule, we generally don’t serve fish with heads and tails intact. The same is true with the heads and feet of our poultry. Also, our language provides a distancing effect: we say “pork” instead of pig and “beef” instead of cow. And unless you’re at a New Orleans seafood boil, you’re probably enjoying your beautiful Gulf shrimp sans head, as well.
This national squeamishness means that large segments of our population could be classified as picky eaters. Unfortunately, that narrow viewpoint keeps many diners from owning their inner omnivore and enjoying glories of the world’s great cuisines: China's, for example.
China is a huge country without a monolithic gastronomic heritage. In fact, there are at least eight identifiable regional cuisines. In the U.S., that means Szechuan, Hunan, or usually Cantonese — which is primarily the style at ABC Chinese Seafood.
The restaurant is in a strip just off I-275. It’s a casual space buzzing with activity and filled with a distinctly Asian clientele, which to me is a great sign. Any time I go to a restaurant featuring a specific ethnic cuisine, I’m pleased it’s filled with diners with a link to the cuisine’s country of origin. After all, who better to evaluate the legitimacy of what’s coming out of a kitchen?
If you’re a regular reader, you know that my culinary background is distinctly European with a Francophile bent. That said, I’m interested in authenticity, and seek experiences to expand my palate and understand gastronomy as a reflection of culture and national character. So when some foreign-born Asian friends include ABC on a list of restaurants not to miss, I bring them along to taste and teach.
The menu at ABC is huge; there’s everything from whole Peking duck with steamed buns to a wide range of soups, noodles and clay pot preparations. And lots of dishes with ingredients not found at the local food court: fish maw, garlic frog and braised tofu, beef tendon, seaweed, and jellyfish. As the name suggests, the specialties of the house come from the sea. Or to be more accurate, from the aquariums that line a wall near the kitchen. Talk about fresh! Your dinner is swimming right up until you place an order. It’s especially fun to see a tank of shrimp gliding through the water doing a kind of multi-legged dog paddle.
When it’s time to order, the sheer number of delectable-sounding choices is nearly overwhelming. My Anglo dining companion is intrigued by the sound of the crispy coconut milk balls. They come to the table warm and reminiscent of golf ball-sized beignets, only filled with creamy coconut milk that’s the texture of soft caramel. Totally surprising and delicious to boot!
I have fond memories of a favorite Chinese restaurant on Cape Cod, so we opt to do head-to-head comparisons with a few less adventuresome dishes: Hong Kong-style won ton soup and the house special fried rice.
Both dishes sail over the bar with ease. The broth is complex and the huge wontons are lusciously filled with a yummy stuffing that seems a pork-shrimp combo. In any case, it is terrific. The same is true for the fried rice that is full of flavor with a balance of soy, scallions and garlic that complement the chopped veggies, crisp pork and nuggets of shrimp.
As I surveyed the Web buzz to see what dishes had diners swooning, two standouts had me salivating. The deceptively simple salt and pepper calamari was oft noted, but the honey-walnut shrimp with baby bok choy and sesame drove palates wild. It sounded a bit odd, but I thought I should give it a shot. My Asian guests suggest that it isn’t as authentic as many of the other offerings, but I am not deterred. The shrimp is perfect and coated in a sweet, but not cloying, glaze. Sesame seeds cling and give added dimension to the walnuts, and the Lilliputian bok choy, apart from being so damn cute, is soft, lightly caramelized and absolutely scrumptious.
The portions are huge and designed to share. We opt for beef and vegetables in X.O. sauce, with shreds of ribeye, and perfect chunks of green bean and asparagus, in a mouth-watering sauce that packs just the right amount of heat.
The free-range chicken steamed with soy sauce and oil delivers tastes that practically jump off the plate. The bird is incredibly moist and full of flavor with skin that, while not crisp, is luscious on the palate — especially with a hit of the accompanying ginger and scallion sauce. Perhaps we just got lucky with the help of friends who know the food, but everything is so good that I can’t wait to return.
NEXT WEEK: Vizcaya Restaurante
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