Rim Ecstasy 

How good can a five-hundred item restaurant be? Phenomenal.

A lot of restaurants try to be everything to everyone, but I've never dined at one that succeeded. Some menus seem like a table of contents to a round-the-world culinary guide and others are so thick they resemble recommended reading in an advanced-level graduate seminar. In my experience, the more scattered the menu, the likelier something will go wrong. Mega-menus signal unfocused cooks and languishing or frozen ingredients.

So when the server at Daimo handed me two--not one but two--menus listing some five hundred items, my heart sank. How could I put together a representative review? How good could everything be? To answer that second question, I'll have to get back to you after another five visits. Or ten. Give me a longer lunch hour, and I'll gladly shoot for twenty.

Daimo is located in the parking lot of the Pacific East Mall, on the border of Richmond and Albany. A culinary theme park, the Pacific East Mall is built around a Ranch 99 Market, part of a West Coast chain of Asian super-supermarkets. The mall also houses ten or so Asian restaurants, along with a number of specialty stores and Tunnel of Music, a karaoke bar.

Daimo is the first US outpost of a Hong Kong-based chain of noodle houses; there are six branches in Hong Kong and two in Vancouver. The Richmond Daimo opened just over two years ago. The restaurant specializes in Cantonese cuisine, highlighting noodle dishes, roast meats, and fresh seafood.

Cantonese cuisine is the Italian food of China: the ingredients determine the dish, not the other way around. Guangzhou (Canton) province and Hong Kong abut the Pacific Ocean in the semitropical southeast part of the country. Abundant in produce and seafood, the region has developed a cuisine that layers pure, fresh flavors instead of merging them into a complex whole. Light sauces predominate, and steaming, blanching, and stir-frying are the most common cooking methods.

Unlike most Chinese-American restaurants, Daimo does not divide its menu (posted online at www.222. to/daimo) into categories that reflect the standard European-American menu. Appetizers are tucked somewhere in the back of one of the menus, and sautéed dishes with many different meats, vegetables, and sauces are grouped together. There are four categories for noodles and another two for congee, a thick rice porridge also known as juk.

On my first visit, a couple of friends and I took my normal approach to restaurant reviewing and "experimented" with a few dishes that looked interesting. Most were good, but I left frustrated with the large menu and puzzled as to how to continue. So I browsed through a few Chinese cookbooks to figure out how to order a meal, and on my next visit, we made more of a conscious choice to order the kinds of dishes we saw on other people's tables. I walked out of the restaurant vibrating with delight.

Feeling I needed expert assistance, I turned to a woman who moved to the US from Guangzhou many years ago and had studied cooking in China. I asked her to look over the paper takeout menu and tell me how she would order from it. Mrs. Chen said that in her part of Guangzhou, congee and noodle soups are eaten during the day or are combined with a vegetable dish and perhaps a poultry dish for a light dinner; congee and steamed rice are never served at the same meal.

According to Mrs. Chen, larger dinners always start with one or more cold dishes--jellyfish salad, roast meats. Next, diners order soup, and then move on to a vegetable dish. (In some American restaurants, the soup bowl becomes the rice bowl, though separate dishes are always used in China.) Afterward comes fish, or shellfish for those who can afford it, followed by a heavier poultry or meat course. Hot pots--typically stewed meats and vegetables--are common in the colder months.

When composing a meal, diners search for a good balance of flavors, textures, colors, food types, and cooking methods. To make sure each dish is tasted at the peak of its flavor, Chinese cooks send it out the moment it leaves the cooking pot.

Daimo takes its name from urban Cantonese restaurants where deliverymen and manual laborers, dai mo, would sit at benches and eat simple food from clay bowls. "But these prices? Not for the dai mo," said Mrs. Chen, laughing and shaking the menu I showed her. Actually, the prices aren't bad. It's possible to fill up on a substantial bowl of noodle soup for $6, including tip. My most expensive meal, which included a whole steamed fish, cost $25 per person.

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