Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Buying a rug in Chinatown
Moon Palace

There are two interrelated issues that appear again and again in food forums. They revolve around the question, why did I not eat what you ate. On one side of the issue are the positivists, seeking to learn how to get a better experience than you. On the other side, their enemies (so to speak), pissed that they got a worse meal. Bleeding heart that I am, I sympathize a bit with the latter group, but my desire to eat as well as possible puts me well in the former. Which is how I found myself today buying a rug.

I like oriental rugs. I like the craftsmanship and style of them--and preferring the hard wood floors too, and I also like that decaying WASP look. Either way, I am happy laying out an oriental rug. While we have a few now, in the bungalow, I have never really bought one. And I want to. I want to not so much to get another rug, but I want to do the oriental rug buying thing. I want to sip through several glasses of mint tea (in glasses I can barely hold in my western tea hands). I want to hear about the exploits of all the proprietors children, and I want to be shown many, many rugs with un-goddly prices before we settle down to some good natured but aggressive haggling. Would it be just as fun for Chinese food?

OK, Moon Palace does not require you to follow a maze of alleys in the souk. It is right there on Cermak in Chinatown, next to the Fire Station. And really, you can just order off of the menu. But we had to bargain. We were bargaining not so much for lunch today, but for a dinner in about a month. Negotiating via that maze of non-translated and off menu dishes. One of the Chowhounds decided to organize a very late Chinese New Year dinner, done Shanghai style at Moon Palace. Our prize then, to produce a grand and authentic Shanghai meal.

Moon Palace's opening salvo, the cheap rug that even an untrained eye could see, was a crispy fried fish fillet done in the standard suburban gloppy "Hunan"sauce. We were not buying. We used our only currency, pestering, name dropping, endless cups of tea (not bad) and the presence of the brilliant one. We countered with pork belly. Give us something too damn fatty, and throw in a couple of chitterlings in the dish (the pork belly over intestine was the one dish that stood in my mind from a previous visit). Oh, no tummy for your tummy, they countered, and we compromised, as all hagglers do, on something in the middle, a pork hock, braised in a maroon sauce, heavy with vinegar but trailing sugar. Tofu skin and large chunks of fresh bamboo added texture to this pretty good dish. We worked our way through two kinds of soup dumplings. The staff appreciated our second order, with crab meat, but truth be told, these tasted a bit like cat food to me. The ante got upped. Moon delivered a lotus leaf package with sticky rice and a log of pork tenderloin, amazingly even this cut of pork was fatty. Standard Shanghai lunch meal we were told. We ate it quickly. Finally, we went for the heart of Shanghai food, the slippery one, eel. Moon Palace did this river creature, frozen in China and de-frosted in their kitchen, proud. A preparation of equal julienne's of mushroom, eel and ginger, in a clear sauce with a black pepper kick, it played really well in the mouth.

OK, the house gave in. The chef would cook us a total Shanghai meal. Only Shanghai specialties. In fact even he did not even know what he was planning to cook, but he knew it would be special. Now, like the best of the omikase chefs, he did not even want a price tag. Well, that condition we declined. We did give him an upper limit. We sealed the deal with sticky rice balls filled with a grainy black something. We would have joined the owner in the back with martini's, but none of us spoke Shanghainese. I'll report back after the dinner.

Moon Palace
216 W Cermak Rd
Chicago, IL 60616-1914

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