You are not finished," the seventy-year-old waiter scolded as he grabbed a spoon and scooped the bottom out of my seafood-filled potato boat, plopping the sauce-soaked spuds mound in the center of my plate. "You eat this, and then you are finished."
I wasn't about to argue. After all, this waiter had convinced me to get the dish in the first place, and then had told the kitchen to pour on the "special sauce" -- whose contents remain a mystery, but which indeed added up to something special. As is just about every aspect of La Chine.
This Chinese restaurant opened back in 1987 in what seemed a promising location in the Denver Tech Center, an area that since has not lived up to its potential as a hot spot for anything, except maybe bad office art and roads that navigate as though they were laid out using a plate of spaghetti as a guide. Today the elegant La Chine is surrounded by an array of ethnic eateries -- Indian, Mexican, Italian -- huddled together just off Belleview Avenue like a small circle of dark rye marbled into a thick slice of white, white bread.
Darryl Jin, the operating manager member of a mostly hands-off ownership corporation, says dinner business can be sparse in this part of town, and so he relies on the DTC hotels to help. "I stay on very, very good terms with the concierges," he admits. "I am grateful to them for sending out-of-towners this way, because at night, Denver does not support us as much as we would like." At lunch, however, it's tough to get a table, partly because the low lighting and stylish atmosphere -- avocado and cream replace the garish red and gold many Chinese restaurants favor, and the wall hangings are so tasteful they almost disappear -- are conducive to civilized business discourse, but mainly because the food is so very good.
Jin's dad, Johnny, is the eager waiter who makes sure everyone eats that food until it's finished, and he's such a favorite that many regulars request him. But friendly, if fatherly, service isn't the only amenity here: La Chine also makes monogrammed chopsticks for those regular customers. The special utensils fill a display case on the way to the dining room. "When we see you enough that we know your face, you'll get your own chopsticks," the hostess informed us.
Two visits to La Chine weren't quite enough for that, but they were more than sufficient to convince me that La Chine is now the best Chinese restaurant in town. And five weeks ago, in fact, it received that award in the Best of Denver 2000.
My first taste of La Chine's fine cuisine was the delicate but delectable consommé-like shark fin soup ($4.75 per person, with a two-order minimum), a rare treat not just because you find it so infrequently in this town, but also because the cook did such a commendable job. The broth had gained flavor as well as a tongue-tempting weightiness from the sand shark's gelatinous appendage -- which, by the way, the Chinese consider an aphrodisiac. We were too distracted by our other appetizers, though, to notice if the fin had any effect. The minced prawns on sesame-coated toast points ($5.75) had their own seductive, nutty sweetness that worked equally well with both dipping sauces: one a creamy mustard, the other tasting like duck sauce and hoisin sauce mixed together. The six fried dumplings ($6) came with a doctored-up soy that added unnecessary saltiness to the succulent pork inside each steamy little bundle, but what the hell -- the combination was deliciously addictive.
The star starter, however, was La Chine's signature dish, the chicken with lettuce and pine nuts ($4 per person; two-order minimum), which the menu calls a "must for first-time diners at La Chine." The menu is right -- but it should also mention that you'll order the dish every subsequent time you dine at La Chine. Soft-as-buttah chicken and lightly toasted pine nuts arrived artfully arranged on a fresh, ice-cold lettuce leaf, which held in the sweet juices of whatever heavenly marinade the fowl had been soaked in before it was wok-fried. The tea-smoked duck ($16), another house specialty, was also a wonder to behold, dark-skinned and fragrant with the scent of a perfumy tea. The bird had been partially deboned, and its moist, tender flesh had a slightly smoky taste. It came with several small, soft steamed buns, which added to the heady smells coming off the plate and proved a nice counterpoint to the chewier duck.
Although the duck was unadorned, superb sauces play a major role in many of La Chine's entrees. The kitchen boasts six cooks, each of whom has a particular specialty, not one of which seems to involve sugary thickeners or gloppy cornstarch goo. Johnny Jin had ordered the "special sauce" for my Sea Shell Treasure ($18.75), a potato basket the size of a large noodle bowl (that's what made it nearly impossible to finish) filled with lobster, shrimp, scallops and some nebulous white fish, along with snow peas and broccoli. I don't know what "non- special" sauce the dish usually comes with, but this one was wonderful: light brown in color, faintly fishy in flavor, with a slight spiciness and a little bit of sweetness, too. It was marvelous with the seafood (sadly, the lobster was overcooked) and the vegetables, but truly exquisite with that sauce-soggy potato that Johnny insisted I try.
Although they didn't have the billing, the other sauces we sampled were special, too. Under the not-too-sticky-sweet coating on the sesame scallops ($15.25) was a thin shell of batter that had to be crunched through to get to the soft, scallop center. A sweetened black-bean elixir cloaked the impeccably poached Norwegian salmon ($18.75); a fiery, coconut-based curry coated the fat-drippy lamb shank ($13.75). And then there was the walnut-pumped hoisin butter that topped the stunning poulet au noix ($14.25).
So what's a nice French dish doing in a place like this? We didn't know, but we licked our plates clean anyway.
Sunny China's setting is as modest as La Chine's is opulent; still, this South Broadway storefront has its charms. Chief among them is the "authentic traditional cuisine" that chef Wa Lee introduced five years ago to supplement the menu's litany of standards. At about the same time Lee came on board, owners Khansy Teng and his wife, Li-tzu Tsai, remodeled the place, which now looks like just about every other neighborhood Chinese joint: black metal chairs, pink and red accents, plenty of plastic flowers.
But the food sets Sunny China apart. You don't find crispy, deep-fried oysters ($9.95) done Asian-style, in a light batter with a spicy ginger-soy sauce on the side, at just any neighborhood joint. Or dried baby fish ($5.95) stir-fried with peanuts and jalapeño slices, their little eyes shriveled so they can't see you happily crunching their heads off. After that, it was easy to stomach the pig's ears ($3.95): spicy, garlicky, chewy and a teeny bit fat-flavored.
Other rarities at Sunny China include roasted duck with mustard greens soup ($4.25), the thin shards of tender duck swimming in a beef-rich broth that was also teeming with flawlessly cut mustard greens. These weren't the mustard greens you find locally, but the greens of the bamboo mustard cabbage, or chuk gaai choy, which is horrible to eat raw -- it tastes like mildewy wood -- but loses its weirdness once it hits boiling water. Lee obviously likes greens, a major staple of a true Chinese diet. Salty, bitter greens contrasted with the spicy sweetness of the sauce covering the barbecued pork rice plate ($4.95); more mustard greens came in a stir-fry of pork and snow peas ($7.95) drenched with a thin but pork-heavy sauce.
Since greens are so strong, you rarely find them in seafood dishes. And while the pungent salt-and-pepper squid ($11.95) could have stood up to the taste, it was simply adorned with scallions; a steamed whole sea bass (market price, which was $18.95 during our visit) arrived lovingly garnished with slices of ginger and onion, which added their essences to the watery but tasty broth beneath the perfectly cooked fish.
Lee's "authentic" menu includes so many interesting items that it was hard to order anything more mundane -- but even those dishes were revelations. The Taiwanese-style rice noodles ($6.95), while seemingly nothing but a massive tangle of noodles, turned out to be rife with onion and pork flavors. The hunan beef ($8.95) featured unbelievably tender chunks of beef that had been deep-fried, then coated in a very spicy sauce. And the crispy duck ($9.95) needed nothing more than a garnish of cilantro to set off the supple meat inside the crunchy skin.
Our only disappointment was an order of steamed pork dumplings ($3.95). The dumplings were greasy, and the pork filling had an unsettling pink tinge that made it look as though the meat hadn't been cooked all the way through.
Otherwise, we cleaned our plates. Johnny would be proud.
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