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Rice Checks

Shrimp and chicken shao mai; steamed duck spring rolls dipped in warm soy; short ribs with red onions in a scallop sauce; a whole striped bass, split, head and tail mounted on opposite ends of the plate and served with the tender filets soaking in a gingered soy broth. While L.D. Buffet (see review, page 59) may have satisfied my urge for extreme critical sport, it did nothing to settle my yen for good Chinese food. For that, I had to go across town to Johnny Hsu's Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant.

Looking at side-by-side menus for the two places, you could (almost) believe they were related. Moo shu this and kung pao that, duck and chicken, lots of seafood, and every dish with a name so familiar (beef with broccoli, shrimp in lobster sauce, Happy Family, Triple Delight and sesame whatever), so common in the diner's modern lexicon, that none of them even seem foreign anymore. But on the floor, the two restaurants couldn't be more different. In every vital measure save pure volume, Hsu's longtime Broadway outpost wins. If L.D. Buffet is where cuisine goes to die, then the Imperial is where it comes to be rehabilitated, taught a vocabulary of Sino-American flavors, dressed up pretty and served with the dignity which it is due.

The waiters here move silently across the carpeted floor, watching their tables with a practiced eye, recognizing the most subtle signs of want or need and responding long before the raised hand or dinner-napkin semaphore is required. Like ghosts in starched shirts and black bow ties, they arrive bearing trays and covered plates. They spoon out rice, mounding it up along the edge of an empty dish, then whisk away finished platters and bowls and used silverware like a circus novelty act -- walking with them stacked all the way up their arms to the elbow.

The Imperial's food is exemplary of what's basically a half-assed concept to start. Americanized Chinese food is a hobbled style, a fence-sitter's idea of perfection with neither traditionalism nor originality on its side, the menus an eternal Fibonacci sequence of repeated themes beginning with good and rocketing down quickly to twisting extremes of pure suck. Although the Imperial can't escape this critique of the cuisine as a whole, its interpretation is near the top of the spiral, offering inspiration in place of originality and clean, bright lines of balanced flavor rather than the dumb, blunt force of the copycats.

The whole bass is beautifully prepared -- not perfectly boned, but tender and delicate nonetheless, steamed with scallions and served in a black bath of ginger-infused soy. The beef with snow peas brings ribeye soft enough to cut with a fork and earthy-sweet pea pods green as flawless jade. The yakitori is dull -- far from the grill-charred skewers of glazed chicken neck and rib meat served on the Ginza -- but harmless, something that can never be said of the Japanese food-cart version, where every order is a gamble on par with eating Tijuana shrimp cocktails off the street. And the signature dishes -- which go on for two pages on the wide-ranging menu -- are all excellent, highly personalized riffs on workaday Asian cafe standards. Whole roasted duckling, stripped off the bone and served with scallion pancakes; sesame prawns that don't taste just like maple candy; Chinese five-spice crab; filet mignon stir-fried with snap peas; even an Asian gumbo -- this is red-velvet, sit-down American Chinese the way it's supposed to be.

What's more, Hsu's other restaurant -- the Palace at 6265 East Evans Avenue, not the takeout joint at the Tech Center King Soopers -- has recently added weekend dim sum to the board. The Palace essentially cloned the Imperial's success, offering that same red- velvet Chinese-American grub as well as Vietnamese food, with excellent, soft-footed service in a Midwestern Chinatown space. The Palace's food is good -- better in some cases than the Imperial's -- but not terribly original, so this experiment in the fish-balls-and-fried-pork breakfast of champions is a welcome addition. Although the dim sum here doesn't quite rise to the level of that found at, say, Mee Yee Lin, which starts doling out the Vietnamese coffee and dumplings at 8:30 a.m. every day of the week, and is available only at weekend brunch, these small plates are priced to move, and some dim sum is certainly better than no dim sum at all.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em: After my original (and highly pissed off) screed on Denver's potential smoking ban ("Smoke Free or Die," December 5, 2002), and after the subsequent weeks of following up and piling on, I figured I was done. I'd had my say, used my soapbox not as a step to elevate myself above the throng, but as a club to bludgeon the dumb, and I felt pretty good about the results. We had a swell dialogue going in these pages for about a month, and shortly after that, the ban offered up by proponents of the nanny-state died an ignominious (though questionable) death -- ground to a fine powder by the machinations of an outgoing city council.

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