I have eaten at Annie Chiu's Sun Luck Garden restaurant over the last several years and have really fallen in love with the quality and inventiveness of her food. She has an amazing eye for detail and accepts no shortcuts when it comes to what she serves in her restaurant. To boot she is always cheery and helpful and that infectiousness transfers nicely to her staff.
After a recent viewing of the New York Metropolitan Opera's The Audition (fabulous, by the way, if you ever have a chance to see it), my companion and I agreed that Sun Luck was to be our dining destination for the evening. Fortunately, my friend had the foresight to call ahead and make a reservation for us. Not ten minutes after we arrived (about 5:20 PM on a Sunday), the place was PACKED.
For starters, I had ordered hot tea. However, it was so noisy that my waiter misheard me and mistakenly brought me hot sake. Now, normally I would've sent it back, but it's been ages since I had a nice hot sake and decided instead to keep it. The sake came in a wonderful little porcelain serving vessel and matching cup:
While Annie has many wonderful soups on her menu, both my dining companion and I decided to go with the curry butternut squash soup. It is a clear broth (think Wonton soup) with dumplings that have a lovely curried butternut squash puree in them.
This was a heavenly cup of soup. The broth was seasoned perfectly and had a real depth of flavor. It was both salty and just slightly sweet, the way that pork can be if prepared correctly. The dumpling was also wonderful. There was just a kiss of curry in the butternut squash puree and the dumpling texture itself was just lovely. Cooked all the way through, with just a little resistance to the tooth.
Next up, we decided to split an appetizer. Although my friend highly recommended the crab rangoon, I was skeptical. I've eaten my fair share of crab rangoon and while I do occasionally come across one that I like, they are usually a disappointment. Not only did Annie's version not disappoint, but it sought to reinvent what a good crab rangoon should be:
The filling in these deep fried wrappers was uniquely Annie's. There was the bit of cream cheese and crab, but there was so much more. A bit of heat, a bit of herbs. And the dipping sauce wasn't the day-glo red sweet and sour sauce you find on every other Americanized Chinese restaurant menu. This was something unique ... sour, sweet, and something else ... akin to a good Nuoc Cham. My dining companion knew what the secret ingredient was and when I guessed, she was impressed and said, "Close!" I won't tell you the actual ingredient, because I want you, the gentle reader, to try this out for yourself and make your own guess. Don't worry, I'll tell you if you guess correctly!
Next up, the entrees. I've always wanted to order the Ma Pou Dofu at Sun Luck, but have just never gotten around to it. This time, I decided I had to have it. As I've learned from a previous visit to Sun Luck, if you want it with a decent amount of heat, you have to order it "Spicy, spicy!" Which is exactly what I did. And this is what was brought to the table:
Now, the unusual thing about Annie's Ma Pou Dofu presentation is that she chops the tofu finely instead of leaving them in larger cubes, which is how most other restaurants serve it. While looking a little unappetizing (I'll leave you to figure out what I mean by looking at the photo), it actually worked very well because everything was basically the same size as the rice. I put a little rice down on my plate, spooned over some Ma Pou Dofu, mixed it a bit with my chopsticks, and the result was marvelous! Salty, sweet (from the ground pork), appropriately spicy, and creamy from the tofu. My dining companion was equally as pleased with the result.
The other entree we ordered was something not even on the menu. Knowing the magic that Annie can create, my dining companion ordered a baby ginger and dark tofu dish. Here is what came out of the kitchen:
It's a little blurry, but this had mushrooms, sliced ginger, dark tofu, carrots, broccoli, and onions. Annie's dark tofu dishes are legendary among her devoted fans and there is a reason: it is amazingly delicious, even to meat eaters. If I had to become vegetarian or vegan, THIS is the dish I would order day in and day out. It was a mix of all thing savory, crispy, creamy, and meaty (without any meat, obviously).
Finally, it should be noted that Annie spent some time as a pastry chef. Her desserts, while not all necessarily true to her Asian heritage, are scrumptious and always worth a look. In fact, my dining companion actually wanted to know what the dessert specials were before ordering any of her food so that she could plan appropriately. From the desserts specials for the day, we ordered the homemade banana ice cream with hot fudge and a blood orange sorbet. That's Annie in the background:
I had the blood orange sorbet. It was the perfect way to end the meal as the acid from the blood oranges cuts through the heaviness of the previous courses. It was nicely balanced with sweet and sour and oddly enough, had much more of a granita-like texture than a sorbet. There were several other sorbet flavors available, but I know the short season for blood oranges and decided to give this one a go.
I also tried a spoonful of my friend's ice cream. It was everything you hoped for in a homemade ice cream. And the hot fudge sauce was rich and chocolate-y and wonderful. If it wasn't perishable, I would be encouraging Annie to bottle the stuff up and start selling it. She could have a successful side business with just that alone.
As her website indicates, Annie is interested in cooking contemporary Chinese cuisine. Starting with techniques and recipes from traditional cuisine and adapting them for the ingredients that are available to you, she serves up something that is unique and delicious. I'm just grateful that I get to eat it. Clearly, Sun Luck Garden is highly recommended.