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10 chicken with black bean and chili hunan style.jpg

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Mei Jiang, Bangkok, Thailand, tasted on December 5, 2005  It may seem that if you've waited to travel all your life to Thailand that eating anything but Thai food would be a crime. This is in fact, not the case. Let me apologize in advance for this gross generalization and romanticism. I claim that in Asia in general there is a much stronger emphasis on food quality, flavor, freshness, and aesthetics than there is in North America. Furthermore, in the major modern cities in Asia (Bangkok, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul) it's just as interesting to try a foreign cuisine as it is to eat the native food. You wouldn't think twice about trying to get kickass Italian food in New York, why not get amazing Chinese food in Bangkok? Why not indeed. This leads to the next counter-intuitive decision which is to get that Chinese food at a hotel restaurant. As I've discussed before in detail, hotel restaurants aren't the place to eat except of course in modern Asian cities with high end hotels such as the Peninsula hotel where I had a fabulous Chinese dinner at Mei Jiang.

I can think of no better word to describe the dining room than "expensive". And I mean this in a positive way. It wasn't ostentatious or stuffy. It was actually beautifully designed and understated. It just was so well done, and so many staff were on hand to wait on my every whim that you just knew that this was a place for... how can I say it... the well heeled. I felt pretty pampered. But ultimately who cared if they were attentive or jerks... I was there for the food.

As I sat down a dish of Candied Sesame Walnuts appeared. They were adorably yummy. And especially tasty with the addition of the chili dipping sauces. The kind staff came by and offered me a knife and for. I acted all tough and said no thanks. I could make it without them. Next up was a Seafood Wonton amuse bouche. This thing had a perfect fried crispy lightness. There was a refined oiliness in a good way. For me the wonton wrapper was the star player of this bite more than the filling.

Two dishes in one showed up next. How about a plate filled with Roast Duck and Barbecue Pork. Mmmm... fatty goodness. Both were very good. But the pork was very very good especially in combination with the Shanghai Sauce (chili paste and oil) and the fresh chili sauce accompaniments.

What better way to balance the fat and flavor of the pork and duck than with a delicate broth and dumpling combo. Lobster Wontons and Brassica in Clear Broth to be specific. Be warned that this dish went way beyond my relatively narrow ability to describe it. I will do my best but don't be surprised if at the end of this paragraph you don't even know where to begin to understand what this soup tasted like. The broth was incredible and special. It had a deep flavor but remained light with a core of uplifting almost lemony (but not lemon... it's a "yellow" flavor?) muted brightness in the center. The brassica seemed close to baby bok choy to me. It was cooked to a perfect blend of tender and crisp textures. The dumplings were sublime. These perfect hermetically sealed tiny bombs of soft seafood goodness would  in your mouth with a bite. But only after you bit. Before that there was absolutely no interaction between the broth and the lobster contents of the dumpling. The waitstaff offered me some white pepper for my soup before I even had my first taste. Thank god I said no. I did, out of curiosity, save a bit of soup at the end so I could experience it with the recommended white pepper. This was a mistake. When you mess around with perfection there's only one way to go.

You would think that if I'm traveling all the way to Bangkok to eat Chinese food so I can tell you about it in the blog that I couldn't pass up a soup offered on the menu called Monk Jumps Over the Wall Soup. You would be wrong. I'm not a big abalone fan (yet?) so I passed. Jeffrey Steingarten I'm not.

I did however have the relatively tame Chicken with Black Bean and Chili Hunan Style. Though it may be a favorite I simply couldn't resist. It was just what I hoped for in my dreams. There was just enough smooth sauce to coat the chicken and vegetables and not a molecule more. The sauce was just thick enough to coat but not hide the meat. The sauce made things better without dominating. And the chicken was impossibly soft, delicious, flavorful, and restrained. Super good.

I was pretty full but somehow found room for the delicate cookies placed before me at the end of the meal. The first was a chewy coconut with custard cream. This one was enjoyable but the second one blew me away. It was a butter cookie. It had an amazingly butter and crispy thin shell surrounding an airy iniside. I wanted to buy a box of these and take them home with me. No such luck.

Can someone please explain to me why it's so hard to make refined Chinese food this good fewer than 14 hours from my house by plane? It's moments like this when I realize that I have a hard time being happy. Instead of reveling in the fact that I did get to eat at Mei Jiang, all I can think of is my frustration that there isn't a branch within 20 minutes of my house. I suppose there are worse problems in the world. Luckily, no matter what your problem, when you're  in Bangkok, Mei Jiang will take care of you and make you forget them - at least for a little while.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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