Friday, October 15, 2010

Imperial Garden's Chinese Buffet

Imperial Garden - Buffet-side Seating
On weekends for lunch, you might find me at one of my favorite Chinese buffet restaurants in Columbus: Imperial Garden. I love Chinese buffets, because Chinese food is my favorite cuisine. But when I eat out alone or with a few friends at a regular (non-buffet) Chinese restaurant, the old rule-of-thumb of ordering one dish per person to share means we don't get very much variety. Fortunately, at even a smallish good buffet, there's quite enough variety to satisfy my diverse hunger.

One requirement of any buffet, though, is that they have enough diners who will empty the food trays quickly enough to ensure that fresh trays of food are continuously coming out from the kitchen. I have tried almost every Chinese buffet restaurant in Columbus and have learned well enough to walk out if I don't see enough fellow diners in the restaurant. This has never been a problem at Imperial Garden.

Imperial Garden's buffet - offered only at lunch on Saturdays and Sundays - has the largest variety of really interesting and original Chinese (specifically, Shanghainese) dishes in Columbus. (Most Chinese buffets cater to an American clientele who prefer what is called "Chinese-American food.") And the dishes are really good here! However, most are dishes that most non-Chinese diners have never experienced. They have sometimes been labeled on the buffet, but the signs are written only in Chinese. So even if my non-Chinese friends are adventuresome enough to try new dishes, they have no idea what they are eating. This photo blog is for those friends, to provide them with a photo menu and diary of the dishes usually served there. Although they often introduce different dishes, many stay the same from week to week.

There are 2 buffet tables. Start with the one in the back of the restaurant. That one has appetizer dumplings and three soups: a savory soup, bean curd soup (to which one typically adds sugar to make it a dessert soup), and a sweet dessert soup (typically, red bean). It also has a few light desserts (usually sesame balls and orange wedges).
Pot Stickers
Cold noodles with hot pepper, bean sprouts, cilantro
Fish soup with preserved cabbage
My first plate selection, with Fried Cruller, Chinese Chive Dumpling
A selection of dumplings, some cold noodles, and a bowl of soup make a nice appetizer course.

On to the hot dishes: about 20 of them, plus 2 additional soups and rice. It's hard to have even just a little taste of all of the entrees, so I concentrate on my favorites the first time around, and go back for another plate to try other dishes. It would take a third plate to have a sampling of all of the dishes, but I never make it that far; I try to save space for a sesame ball and water chestnut gelatin, when offered, for dessert.

Although my family is Cantonese, Mom was born and raised in Shanghai. So while Pop and Yeh-Yeh (Pop's father) cooked Cantonese food at home and most Chinese restaurants in my childhood NY were Cantonese, it was a special treat to go to the 2 Shanghai restaurants in Manhattan (one in Chinatown, the other up on Broadway and 92nd St.). So both real Cantonese and Shanghainese food are comfort food for me - and it's certainly comforting for me to enjoy Imperial Garden's food.

Working on this blog is getting me hungry! I'm glad I've invited friends to meet me there this Sunday for lunch! If you'd like a personal tour of this food for lunch, just give me a call; I'd love to guide you and your palate!

Rice Noodles
Shanghai Bok Choy
Fried Chicken Wings
Roast Duck
Beef Tendon with Bamboo Shoots: my favorite!
Braised Pigs Feet
Chinese Radish with Hot Peppers
Sea Weed
Tendon Beef with Peanuts
Fish Fillets with Pepper Sauce
Chicken in Peanut Sauce
Pigs Ears with Vegetables
Baby Squid with Celery: another favorite
Pork Belly with Cabbage and Carrots
Japanese Eggplant
Pork Intestine with Tofu (don't say "yuk" until you try it!)
New Zealand Mussels
Pressed Tofu with Pork and Bamboo Shoots: my virtuous favorite
Salt-cooked Whole Shrimp
Beef Tripe
Egg Drop and Hot and Sour Soups
White Rice
Sweet Rice Sesame Balls with Black Bean Paste
Main Buffet Table

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Das Rheingold - The Metropolitan Opera's New Production

Robert Lepage's new production of Das Rheingold is a winner! I saw it last night in its third mounting at the Met. While Wagner is not for everyone, I came to enjoy his operas early on. His music is stirring – especially as conducted by the Met's James Levine – and the Met's cast, headlined by Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe, gave magnificent performances, as they usually have done. My comments here, then, focus on the new production.

I had been concerned about what Lepage would do in his production of Wagner's Ring Cycle since seeing his production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust 2 seasons ago.

For that opera, Lepage created 4 tiers of walkways in large frame for the Met stage, fronted and backed with video projection screens. It was a clever treatment to accommodate the opera, which was written with over 20 scenes (doing that many physical scene changes would have been challenging, even for the Met, and the set costs would have been prohibitive, given the relatively few performances the opera would have over the years). Still, the set didn't use the entire 54'x54'x54' space of the Met's huge stage; I've described that set as being more than the 2 dimensions of a video screen, but not fully 3D – more like 2 1/3 dimensions. Would Lepage limit Wagner's heroic scenes to 2 1/3 dimensions? Horrors!

My concerns were magnified with last season's Opening Night presentation of the new Luc Bondy production of Tosca, replacing the spectacular and much loved Franco Zeffirelli version. News stories of the event reported the production was loudly booed on opening night. I saw it 3 days after its opening and felt the sets, though somewhat minimal, weren't so bad.

But it was a tactical mistake to offer replacements of the lavish Zeffirelli sets with miminal Bondy ones on an Opening Night performance, in which patrons are charged a hefty surcharge and forced donation to see so little. How could the Met charge so much and offer so little to see?

The pre-production publicity about the new Ring Cycle production started to allay my fears. The stories of a gargantuan 45 ton machine in a production costing over $20 million certainly suggested there would be something to see. And seeing something is part of what opera at the Met should be all about. I find myself in a fundamental disagreement with NY Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini, who seems to dislike anything other than minimalist productions, often stating that the visual spectacle of grand productions by Franco Zeffirelli and others distract from the singing and the music. I can get minimalist anywhere – including Columbus, Ohio. With the world's largest opera stage and budget, the Met should mount productions that can be experienced only there!

Well, Lepage's production of Das Rheingold meets my criterion. And it enhanced the story of the opera instead of distracting from it.

The scene opens with the machine's 24 planks extended as a slope, then slowly tilting in unison, lifting and revealing 3 Rhinemaidens on cables to dangle before the angled undersides of the planks as if swimming in water. The visual magic continues, as the planks tilt further until the top sections are fairly horizontal – providing the Rhinemaidens a platform on which to rest – and the bottom sections tilt as a giant slide toward the stage.

The visual magic then started, with the sections changing from their blue hue to a field of river stones – stones that reacted to pressure from the Rhinemaidens' bodies. As the performers' tails swished or they touched their bodies to the platforms, the river stones slid down the slope, as real rocks would! At first, I thought these were carefully choreographed motions made to synchronize with projected movies on the planks. As I watched transfixed, though, the coordination was too perfect. Could it be the planks were touch-sensitive and the images moved in reaction, just as a computer's touch screen display would?

At that point, I longed to find an application for my computer that would replicate this magic! I recall seeing something similar in an app for my iPhone when I first got it. A quick Google search failed to locate such an app or website; finding one – if it exits – will take some effort.

For the rest of the 2 hour 35 minute opera – the longest single act in the Met's repertoire without an intermission (the cognizenti know to go to the bathroom just before the curtain) – the planks transform, becoming backdrop, roof, and stage.

I understood one of my fellow Opera Club member's comment that having seen the performance on Opening Night, he wished there were more use of video on the planks. Yet, perhaps, more video would have distracted from the performances. There are three more operas to come in the Ring Cycle; I expect Lepage will continue to dazzle even the most jaded Metropolitan Opera goers as his productions develop.

The other aspect of note in the production is the use of the planks as surfaces to be climbed – with the help of cables supporting the performers. Except for the Loge character – who walks backwards up the steeply angled planks (aided by a cable and winch) to sing a few of his arias – the singers are all represented by Cirque du Soleil-like body doubles in the same costumes as the singers when the cable walks are called for. When Wotan and Loge traverse to and from the Nibelung realm deep in the earth, the planks are used as an Escher-like staircase, with the stair treads mounted vertically, like a wall. The characters walk the stairs with their bodies jutting perpendicularly from the stairs, pointing straight out to the audience.

The final scene has the gods ascending the Rainbow Bridge to their Valhalla castle. They do so by walking straight up section of steeply angled and beautifully lit planks, their bodies, again, jutting out almost parallel to the stage floor. As they approached the top of the planks, they rotated to a horizontal position, admitting the gods to Valhalla. Visually and metaphorically, it was very powerful, in keeping with Wagner's stirring score. I'm glad the bridge worked for my performance; it didn't on Opening Night. The body doubles did such a good job that I heard some in the audience complain that they would force singers to undertake such strenuous physical activities! It was clear through the Leica binoculars that I use as opera glasses that it wasn't Stephanie Blythe who was walking up the Rainbow Bridge.

So my verdict: While I enjoyed the realism of the Otto Shank production of the Ring Cycle, I always felt it was visually rather dark and somber. Lepage's production is exciting, yet for all its theatricality, I didn't find it overly distracting. I'm ready for more! Number 2 in the cycle, Die Walkure, will premiere on April 22nd, then the remaining two come next season. They'll be hard tickets to get!

[Thanks to the Met's website and news stories on the web for the photos I've used here. The Met, of course, does not permit photography in the theater.]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wicked: Questioning what we know

As a frequent Metropolitan Opera goer, I haven't gotten out to see many Broadway shows in recent years. So I was delighted to catch up with the performance of Wicked during its latest Columbus run. While not the same caliber experience as the opening cast on Broadway, the touring company versions we get here compare well to the later casts of long-running shows in NYC. Wicked was no exception: bright, energetic, entertaining, with an appreciative audience; it made for a very enjoyable evening.

Wicked is currently the longest-running show on Broadway (it opened in Oct. 2003). I wanted to see it mainly to learn the backstory it presented to The Wizard of Oz. For those who haven't seen it, Wicked tells the Oz story from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. We learn how the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow came to be as well as many other aspects of the story that, thanks to Judy Garland, is so well known to all of us.

While I was being entertained by the show, songs, and story, I kept thinking how we grow up thinking of history in one way. Of course, The Wizard of Oz is fiction, not real history. But Wicked asks us think whether the story we know so well is what really happened.

So while I was watching and listening, I thought about Josephine Tey's book The Daughter of Time and learning at Cornell several years ago what the study of history is all about. (See my prior blog: Why Study History?) In her book, Tey turns around the story of King Richard III and asks the reader to question whether history's view of the wicked hunchbacked Richard portrayed by Shakespere in his play (and by Lawrence Olivier on the screen), is really accurate. History, after all, is written by the victors, and in Richard III's case, depicting Richard as wicked served the purposes of the succeeding Tudor dynasty. Tey raises her question, though, through a fictional mystery story, much as Dan Brown raised his question, 52 years later, on Jesus Christ's real relationship with Mary Magdalene in his wildly popular The Da Vinci Code.

A more direct history vs. history challenge has been raised by Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World in which Menzies challenges the story American schoolchildren have learned for generations: that the European explorers starting with Christopher Columbus discovered the sea routes that led to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The romantic history we were taught is that Columbus and other Europeans were so bold that they questioned the flat earth notions of the time. Menzies reveals documentary and other evidence that Chinese Admiral Zheng He led Ming Dynasty treasure ships around the world in and after the year 1421 and prepared maps that reflected the world - maps that ultimately Columbus and the other European explorers had seen that helped them in their voyages.

American education has long been criticized as being far too Euro-centric. My purpose in this blog entry isn't to carry on that debate (I'll leave that issue to a future blog), but to raise the issue of questioning what we know.

Questioning what we know can be a dangerous pursuit. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History,  wrote of the slings and arrows he suffered in questioning what we all think we know in his book and PBS show The Pluto Files. When Tyson and other astronomers downgraded Pluto's status from "planet" to "Kuiper Belt Object" he and his colleagues were vilified by the venerable NY Times and scores of third-graders (at least until the Times published another story, 5 years later, acknowledging the reasonable position the scientists had taken). So many of us learned (and had drilled into us) the fact that there are 9 planets in our solar system; that history must be respected and protected. As one who once aspired to be an astronomer myself, my sympathies are with Tyson. But the reasons for my sympathies go further.

One of the fundamental purposes of post-secondary education is to develop critical thinking. But thinking critically about issues - whether they be about stories, histories, or the definition of scientific terms such as "planet" - is not merely an intellectual ability. Critical thinking is also a disposition: a willingness to undertake the hard work of questioning what we are being presented with. Such disposition does not come naturally after 12 or so years of elementary and secondary school education in the U.S., since much of what we learn in school is so often presented as unquestioned fact to be accepted and memorized.

With the continually growing volume of factionalized political argument we are faced with, the future of our democratic system of government and the future of our country depend on our ability to instill more Americans with the ability and disposition to think critically about the "facts" we are presented with and the choices we are being asked to make. I am delighted that a Broadway show might get some in the audience to question what they know and so help underscore the importance of critical thinking.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

King's Garden Restaurant - Dublin, OH

I'm always looking for new Chinese restaurants in the Columbus area, so I was delighted to hear than an old one had reopened last week by a couple who had run a different restaurant that I used to frequent.

Jessie and Guill joined me at King's Garden Restaurant for lunch today. It's on Sawmill Road, about 1 mile north of the I-270 exit. It's a small place - only about a dozen tables - with no decor in yet another strip mall. Although the new owners were known for their dim sum at their former restaurant (Shangri-La), no dim sum here. But they did carry over their 2 menus - including their menu of real Cantonese dishes (fortunately, in Chinese and English here), as well as their Chinese-American menu.

So many interesting dishes - real Chinese comfort food! We started with Won Ton Noodle Soup and Preserve Egg w/ Pork Congee. Each was a big bowl, plenty for 4 or more to share. Then the Empress Fried Tofu (reminiscent of Pipa Tofu), Beef Stew With Daikon (with chunks of tendon as well as meat), and Eggplant w/ Anchovy Sauce (a nice change from the plebeian eggplant with garlic & ginger sauce).

Each dish had authentic tastes, but will be unusual for those not familiar with real Chinese dishes. And the prices are certainly reasonable. Since Jessie & Guill live nearby, they'll be stopping by for takeout on the way home.

I was very happy to find another authentic Chinese restaurant. The dishes were most like those at Imperial Garden on Hayden Run Road at their weekend lunch buffet (always jammed with Chinese diners). Unfortunately, both King's Garden and Imperial Garden are on the other side of town from me. Nearer me with a real Shanghai menu is Little Dragons on Morse Road just off I-71.

Even in little Columbus, we can get authentic home-style Chinese food. As I've been happy to say, I never have to apologize for the quality of food here in Columbus!