Here's the pitch a reader sent me: New restaurant run by a former cook from DAIMO. Want to know more?
For those of you who haven't been, DAIMO, in the parking lot of the Pacific East Mall, may be the best Cantonese restaurant in the Bay Area. It's always packed, always crazy, and almost always exceptional. But like I said, it's always packed and always crazy.
Moonlight Seafood Restaurant, just off the corner of San Pablo and Solano avenues, doesn't have enough cooks to do everything with the finesse that DAIMO's huge crew can. But the new restaurant pulls off consistently great homestyle Cantonese fare. A pity the public hasn't figured that out yet.
Three months after its grand opening, Moonlight is largely empty. What's been holding the restaurant back? There's no way to say it delicately: Might be the decor. Tatty blue-green carpeting, scuffed white tiles on the floors, shiny double-happiness signs and neon-hued landscapes nailed up above wood paneling, and in the banquet room, a '60s-era cylindrical fireplace. Near the kitchen are tanks containing catfish, lobsters, and crabs -- the crustaceans trying to squirm out of their fate, the catfish looking as if they're lounging around the pool. The most distinctive feature of Moonlight's room is a round, carved-wood doorway evoking ancient Chinese hobbits. But hey, the restaurant is clean, and the kitchen, which you can spot on the way to the bathroom, is even cleaner.
According to Moonlight's manager, owner and chef Zhao Qiang Mai trained in Guangzhou, the largest city in Guangdong (Canton) Province. He moved to the United States to work at DAIMO, then left to open up Moonlight.
Like most Chinese cooks in the United States, Mai pads Moonlight's menu with Chinese-American standards like Mongolian beef and kung pao prawns. My general advice on how to pick out the stuff the cooks do really well from the stuff they make just for you, my gwailo friends, is to avoid ordering anything that you normally eat from a takeout box.
Think of Cantonese food as the Californian cuisine of China, marked by clean, fresh flavors and light sauces. That said, black bean sauce, XO sauce, and even sweet and sour also show up frequently in the southeast of China. Looking over the menu, direct your eyes toward the seafood, the first third of the chicken entrées, the spareribs, all the vegetables, and the claypot dishes.
Or let the chef pick for you. On my first visit, I brought three friends to Moonlight. After staring at the menu for fifteen minutes, we asked where we could find the live lobster and crab dishes. The waitress brought over a menu describing set meals for three, four, and up to eight people. Jackpot.
Mai has designed Moonlight's set menus for Chinese diners, not friends of General Cho. The fixed-price dinners contain a dozen or so dishes you won't find on the regular menu, and highlight what the restaurant does best. My friends and I settled on the five-person dinner for $57. "That's for five or six people," the server warned.
"We'll just take the extras home," we told her. On paper, ten dishes for $57 looks like a bargain. When four of you are sitting at an eight-person table inundated with platters, it looks like a banquet.
From the seafood tofu soup at the start to the orange slices at the end, everything was good. The chef constructed the meal with an eye for balance: deep-fried vs. braised, spicy vs. bland, red contrasting with white and green enlivening brown.
The crust on a whole deep-fried sole (called a "sanddad" on the menu) flaked off in crisp papery sheets, the delicate flesh sparked up with a splash of soy. Next to it, a chorus of open-mouthed clams coated in pungent black-bean sauce. A plate of baby bok choy, quickly simmered in a crystalline chicken stock with garlic just until most of the crunch melted out of the greens, was shifted around to make room for a hotpot of silky, salty pork belly braised in soy sauce and spices for hours.
I found fault with just two out of the ten: The Peking spareribs, battered and fried, were sautéed in a coral-colored sweet and sour sauce that resembled red Jell-O; other versions I've tasted have gone deeper and richer, the sauce more closely matched with the beef. And the spicy, salty crust on the deep-fried shrimp was so good that we couldn't peel it off -- just eat the shell -- but the meat inside had that firm, muscular texture that results from overcooking.
Like the spareribs, whose meat has to be sucked off the bone, the two best dishes of the meal required a little extra work. The half-chicken in rice wine is steamed, then marinated in wine for an hour or so. After dipping chunks of the cold chicken into a saucer containing a pesto of ginger and green onions -- a spike of fragrance and salt -- we worried the tender meat off the bones, the pesto fading into the flavor of the sweet rice wine, then to the natural chicken itself. The other stellar dish: a whole lobster, chopped and wok-fried with more sweet rice wine, big chunks of ginger, and scallion greens. The meat came out of the shell as silky as flower petals.
As the only diners in the restaurant, we garnered the unceasing attentions of the server-slash-manager, who hovered to clear away bone-strewn dinner plates and make sure we didn't elbow any of the platters off the overloaded table. Not surprisingly, she remembered me when I returned a week later with another party of four.
This time I tried ordering from the menu. Well, except for the off-menu crab. You can get the crabs or lobsters cooked one of three ways: steamed, sautéed with ginger and scallions, or deep-fried with spicy salt. Again, the server recommended the ginger-scallion treatment, so this time we dismantled a 24-ounce Dungeness crab, just as sweet and tender as the lobster. Following a few recommendations from my original tipster, we tried the chicken with asparagus, which came in a beautifully balanced black-bean sauce -- not bitter, not too soy-salty, and bristling with ginger -- and curlicued prawns awash in snap peas. The prawns were sautéed in XO sauce, a robust salsa of chopped bacon, dried chiles, and minuscule dried shrimp.
Again, the chef took a delicate, no-nonsense Cantonese approach to steamed mustard greens with black mushrooms -- just a plate of crisp-tender vegetables in clear stock -- and the house special chicken, a succulent poached chicken bathed in a light, sweet soy-based sauce. We balanced the summery flavors against a beef brisket claypot, a cheap, fatty cut of meat braised to succulence in a sugary bean sauce tinged with star anise.
Giving a humble cut of beef the Rapunzel treatment was yet more evidence that Chef Mai is doing the same thing as California-cuisine restaurants like Meal Ticket, Gioia Pizzeria, or Dopo: combining high-caliber culinary technique and scaled-down ambitions. He's just doing it Cantonese style.