Monday, December 28, 2009

New Spicy Szechuan Offerings At Wonton Gourmet

Normally, on the Sunday after the Ohio Linuxfest is held, my aunt and I traditionally go out for lunch somewhere in Columbus before I head back home to Akron. However, on this particular Sunday I had been invited by a very good friend to attend a late lunch she was throwing at Wonton Gourmet in Cleveland to showcase some of the new menu items that had been added recently. Now I know that I have written about Wonton Gourmet several times before here on my blog and there have been plenty of times I have gone and didn't write about it because I had already covered the food or just plain decided I didn't want to belabor the point. However, since our nine course meal was covering new culinary ground, I thought it would be appropriate to not only come back early so that I could attend the festivities, but also write up an entry to introduce the new food to you as well.

I arrived at around 2:20 PM and decided that since I had never included a shot of the front of Wonton Gourmet, I would do so now:

I walked in to find that our hosts, Diane and Steve, were already sitting at our table waiting for our not-so-small group of tasters to arrive. The original invitation that Diane had sent out to her guests had a list of the courses that we would be served today; however, there were a few changes and the addition of one extra course to surprise us. After the entire party arrived, the first course was brought out and consisted of a hot corn and tofu soup which was ladled into bowls before being passed around:

I have had this completely vegetarian soup one other time and absolutely loved the subtle interplay between the corn and the tofu. As with many of Wonton Gourmet's dishes, the flavors balanced sweet and savory extremely well. While I knew I had to pace myself, I ladled another half bowl of this soup into my dish before forcing myself to stop.

Food at Wonton Gourmet is served "family style." This means that the food is brought out as it is finished being prepared in the kitchen and is served in one large bowl or large plate. Often times this manifests itself as multiple dishes coming out in rapid succession and longer pauses occurring in between courses. Next up, a dish of yuba wrapped pork and shrimp filled rolls in a savory sauce appeared on our table:

While I initially thought that the one per customer rule was a bit strict, I was thankful later on that I had actually only eaten one of these rolls. These were tender and flavorful and the filling really touched on my sense of umami. The yuba skins were very tender and held up well to my manhandling of the roll with my chopsticks.

The next course to appear on our table was one of the new spicy dishes, Szechuan Style Jumbo Shrimp:

In addition to all of the obvious chili peppers in the above photo, this dish also had sliced celery. The shrimp were absolutely fantastic. They were large and had a dry coating on them. Tossed around with a fiery blend of spices and chilies, the shrimp had a piquancy to them that was pronounced without being overpowering. As with many traditional Chinese dishes, this was a dry dish. Spooning this over my rice didn't do a whole lot to add flavor to my rice, although it did allow my rice to counteract some of the heat.

The next dish to be served was the XO Paste Rice:

While I originally thought this was just shrimp and scallop fried rice, it wasn't until my friend Edsel pulled up the menu on his iPhone that we realized that this dish was to feature XO Sauce. While this dish was excellent, neither Edsel nor I really got a distinct flavor from the XO Sauce. He admitted, too, that had he been served this and not known what it was supposed to be, he would've just assumed it was your standard seafood fried rice.

The next course to arrive at our table was the Ma La Pork Chop:

Traditionally, the "Ma La" refers to two different sensations, one being the spiciness of the chili and the second being the actually numbing of the lips and mouth. This is usually accomplished through the addition of Szechuan peppercorns, an ingredient that you will be hard pressed to find being used in Americanized Chinese cuisine, especially food that is destined for the traditional American palate. While the pork chop had a great flavor and a nice spice, it was only after careful inspection that we discovered just a few Szechuan peppercorns on the plate. I'm guessing the cook wanted to introduce us to this flavor and sensation without giving the diners full frontal "Ma La."

Smartly, Diane decided to include a green leafy vegetable in the middle of the meal instead of at the end. In previous visits, the greens always seem to come out last when everyone is too full to enjoy them. This plate of Yu Choy dressed in a savory sauce seemed perfectly timed:

Yu Choy, also know as the rape (pronounced "rop-A") plant, was similar to Chinese broccoli in texture, but not quite the same in flavor. The rape was nicely cooked and the entire vegetable was tender with just a bit of crispness to it. Diane's plan worked perfectly, and platter after platter of this tender vegetable was eaten up before the arrival of our next course.

I was surprised and delighted when the next course arrived, the Hot and Spicy Szechuan Fish:

I had the privilege of eating this dish the last time I went to Wonton Gourmet several weeks ago and absolutely fell in love with it. Comprised of whitefish and Chinese cabbage that had been cooked in a spicy, hellish broth and topped with loads of fresh garlic, this dish was a flavor explosion and a garlic lover's dream. Additionally, since this dish was served "wet," there was plenty of sauce to spoon over the rice. The fish was cooked perfectly, tender and still juicy, and the combination of the chilies and garlic tantalized my sense of smell even before I managed to eat any.

Our final savory course was known as Hot and Spicy Two Flavor Beef:

This dish contained two cuts of beef, tripe and tendon. Served in a spicy sauce and topped with peanuts, scallions, and sesame seeds, this dish had me a bit worried. Tripe is not my favorite cut of beef and if it isn't prepared correctly can be frightfully chewy. I needn't have worried as the tripe was incredibly tender. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the beef tendon that was a bit too cartilaginous for my taste. The flavor of this dish was very good, but I did have an issue with some of the textures. I'm glad I tried it, however.

All I knew of the last dish was that it would contain sweet red beans and lotus. Knowing that the Chinese don't like extremely sweet desserts like Westerners do, I figured it would be some take on a sweet red bean filled pastry. It turns out what we were served was a sweet red bean "soup." Here was a shot of the dessert:

This was quite interesting. I will have to admit it isn't something that I would crave, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to try it. It was served warm and definitely tasted of sweet red beans. The consistency was that of a regular bean soup you would see here in the United States, although it was smoother. As I had thought, the sweetness was very reserved. It was a nice way to clear out all of the spice of the previous meal. Being pretty darn full by this point, I only managed to eat about half of my soup before stopping.

Traditionally, Wonton Gourmet presented food from the Hong Kong region in the Cantonese style of cooking, which didn't lend itself to a lot of hot and spicy dishes. However, looking back at our amazing meal, I realized that nearly half the course were Szechuan-like, if not outright Szechuan. I'm happy about this because no other restaurant in Cleveland, Akron, or Canton serves this style of cuisine (at least to my knowledge). Now I have four more reasons to return to Wonton Gourmet when I need my spicy Chinese food fix.

While we managed to get away with all of this food (plus plenty of leftovers for the next day) for a mere $30, including tax and tip, normally meals at Wonton Gourmet run as low as $10 per person. While you can certainly go by yourself, it's when you get to have a shared experience with five of your closest friends that the sense of community really comes alive. I know that our group of twenty people had a very communal experience with today's meal and I look forward to returning soon for another fantastic experience. As always, Wonton Gourmet is highly recommended.

Wonton Gourmet on Urbanspoon


DianeS said...

What a fun meal that was!

I agree about the XO Fried Rice. I think it could stand a heavier hand with the XO paste.

It's getting time to work on a Chinese New Year dinner at Wonton.

Tino said...

@DianeS: You're right! I can't believe it's nearly time again for Chinese New Year. I'm looking forward to another remarkable CNY dinner at Wonton.

Mahala said...

My son and I just ate lunch at Wonton Gourmet on our way to an appointment in Cleveland and it's the best Chinese we have had in years. We love Siam Cafe, LI Wah for dimsum, and several other establishments, but his just blew us away. How is it we never knew about this! We will be rushing back with the whole family in tow very soon. Thanks for the great information!

Tino said...

@Mahala: I KNOW! Isn't it just amazing?!? I feel almost guilty blogging about it time after time, but with the level of the food they serve, I just can't help myself. It's a shame there isn't something closer to Akron, but at only 45 minutes away, I don't mind zipping up to Cleveland because I know what a wonderful meal I will have.

If you want a fabulous post-WG treat, travel up Payne Avenue just a little bit (away from downtown) to KoKo Bakery for some awesome bubble tea and filled buns.

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