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Entries in Les Delices Shan Dong (1)


LES DELICES DE SHANDONG--At Last, Superb Chinese Food in Paris, A-/B+

  Before I extol Les Delices de Shandong in the 13th arrondissement, it's obvious that I should offer a glimpse of my credentials as a critic of Chinese cooking, in this case, the superb regional kitchen of Shan Dong. Alas, as much as I feel qualified to write authoritatively on the American, British, French, Italian, Spanish and other Western kitchens, it's best to admit that my knowledge of Chinese cooking is rather infantile, or to wit, it's based very much on a personal primal reaction to what tastes good. Oh, to be sure, I grew up eating, and loving, 'Chinese' food of a sort, since Sunday night take-out meals from the excellent 'West Lake' in downtown Westport, Connecticut next to the public library, and the also good 'Golden Door' restaurant in a shopping center on U.S. 1, were a treat I craved as a suburban child with an insatiable hunger for new tastes and flavors, textures and ingredients.
  Mom would save the printed takeout menu from one order to the next in a drawer next to the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen, and around about 7pm on a Sunday, I'd poke my head around the corner every five minutes to see if she was sitting at the kitchen table filling out the menu before calling in the order. The only consolation for me if she wasn't making fat gray Xs with a well gnawed yellow pencil was the possibility we'd be getting pizza instead--Mom understandably felt that she deserved a night off from shopping and cooking for a family of six, so Sunday was often takeout night, and the promise of favorite foreign foods blunted the terrible melancholy I always felt on the 7th day of the week. 
  We almost always had the same things, too: egg drop soup, egg rolls, shrimp toast, barbecued pork spare ribs, fried rice, Moo Goo Gai Pan (an Americanized version of a Cantonese dish that involved chicken with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, snow peas {mange toute}, and water chestnuts in a tame chicken-broth based sauce), egg foo yung, shrimp with cashew nuts, and broccoli, I think, which no one ever ate, with a grand finale of fortune cookies that no one actually ever ate either. These were great kitchen table meals with plastic packets of the hot Chinese mustard my father liked, sweet 'duck' sauce,' soy sauce and the food packed in waterproof folded square white paper boxes with thin wire handles. LIttle did I know that most of what we were eating was heavily Americanized Cantonese cooking, and in fact, my education in Chinese gastronomy got muscled out of the way in the 70s and 80s by the arrival of lots of other foreign restaurants in Westport--a couple of terrible Mexican restaurants, a prissy French place called Bon Appetit that had--get this, sea salt on its tables, and a flock of salad-bar-anchored steakhouses with Olde Taverne style decors and big pepper grinders on the tables. Amazingly enough, Westport even had a Bulgarian restaurant, the Cafe Varna, where we had cub scout dinners that left a lot of little boys politely alarmed by stuffed grape leaves and other Balkan fare.
  Aside from a few shocking forays to restaurants in Boston and New York's Chinatowns as a college student--'real' Chinese food was almost alarming for being so much more vivid--I mean, the chicken tasted like chicken, it wasn't until I moved to New York after college and was living on the Upper West Side that my Chinese culinary education advanced, and then it was in the blaze of hot peppers unleashed on Manhattan by the sudden popularity of Szechuan cooking, which made everyone rather embarrassedly aware that China had regional kitchens like, um, Italy, and that what we'd thought was Chinese food was tasty but timid stuff shrewdly edited to politely tantalize our wan palates. The Cuban Chinese food in the neighborhood was a fascinating red herring, though, and occasionally, I'd trek down to Chinatown with other broke young friends.
  I don't think I advanced much, however, until the brilliant and courtly editor for whom I was editorial assistant at Random House invited me out for lunch on a long ago birthday. It was a beautiful Fall day, but I labored in the space of a sudden ill-defined social occasion to create conversation that I thought would interest him as we walked up Third Avenue and then cut across to Shun Yee Palace, where I ate my first Peking duck, a dish so good that I stopped caring if my conversation with a man my father's age seemed smart or interesting and just ate, greedily wrapping duck, crispy duck skin and finely chopped scallion (perhaps some cucumber, too?) in hot rice-flour pancakes smeared with plum sauce. This was one of the best things I'd ever eaten, and I just couldn't stop. "The best companions at the table have real appetites," the editor said eliptically as we were walking back to the office, and if i was momentarily alarmed that he might have found me dull, I also had the rest of our lunch in a brown paper bag to look forward for dinner that night, and instinctively knew I'd have plenty of time to puzzle over his bon mots in the years to come. Suffice it to say that I finally figured out that he loved really good food and was the father of four difficult sons, so the relaxed quietude of sharing a really good meal with someone else who was also immersed in their own pleasure was surely a rarity for him.
  Okay, then, enough ambered reminiscence. So am I a reliable judge of Chinese cooking? Well, yes, I'd like to think so, and this is why I'd say that if you were only going to go to a single Chinese restaurant in Paris, it should be Les Delices de Shandong, where I ate with Bruno, who lives in terror of red pepper, the other night. I've been reading opinions of this place by French colleagues who know a lot more about Chinese food than I do for a longtime, Sophie Brissaud on her P'tit Pois blog foremost among then, and so was really looking forward to this meal. It was superb.
  I loved the animation of the brightly lit dining room, and accustomed to the usual get'um in get'em out brusqueness of Asian restaurants in the 13th arrondissement, I was surprised by the polite service. We stared at the menu and negotiated a meal for two very different appetites. I wanted to try the pork-and-cabbage filled dumplings, but agreed to an order of noodles in sesame sauce for Bruno in case the dumplings proved too fiery. Since I didn't know much about Shan Dong cooking, I just couldn't assure Bruno that they'd be something he could eat (To learn more about Shan Dong cooking, you might want to watch this YouTube: Well, the dumplings, which were filled with delicately tangy (black vinegar, I think) smoky chunky pork and cabbage were spectacular, and the sesame noodles, though much tamer, were good, too, but I wouldn't feel obliged to order them again if I went back with someone else.
  Main courses required similar calculation and negotiation. I had no interest in shrimp with cashews at all, but knew they'd be fine for Bruno if the saute of smoked pork with lots of red peppers, celery, Savoy cabbage, and a few fermented black beans was too potent. Well, it was brilliantly potent--one of the best Chinese dishes I've ever eaten, in fact, and with regular slugs of Tsingtao beer, Bruno enjoyed it, too, and we both liked the liserons (oddly called 'blindweed' in English, but resembling a sort of leaf-less watercress) in garlicky emerald-green tofu sauce. And the shrimp with stale cashews was desperately bland, almost as though the chef was offended that someone would order something so dull.
  On the way home, Bruno, who works in a busy crowded office while I spend my eccentrically quiet and solitary days in flannel pajamas and sweat shirts to a busy rhythm of my own mad making, admitted that the food was very good, but had problems with the noise. It was noisy, but I barely noticed. Instead I was thinking about who I could draft to go back with me to try the soups, the kidneys, the intestines, the carp, and a dozen other dishes I noticed trailing by with avaricious envy. This is a terrific restaurant. And to think it all started out over egg rolls with duck sauce in Greens Farms, Connecticut.
Les Delices de Shandong, 88 boulevard de l'Hopital, 13th, Tel. 01-45-67-23-37. Metro: Campo-Formio. Closed Sunday. Average 25 Euros.