I recall a time, many years back, when a good friend of mine invited me to dine with his family at a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. I'm talking about the kind of place where English is a third language and menu items are typeset in characters resembling snowflakes. One of the many dishes ordered was a fried pregnant fish, and I recall recoiling in revulsion at that plateful of distended bellies filled with ooze-ready eggs. Others around the table baited me to give it a try, but the fact that my friend didn't eat it (and he ate everything) was reason enough for me to abstain.
I was a much less adventurous eater back then, and, yes, I regret not having sampled that exotic dish when I had the chance. So I told myself that diving headfirst into the fish-filled environs of Chinatown Seafood Restaurant would extend an opportunity of redemption for me or, at the very least, an opportunity to sample some of the more unusual offerings from the deep end of the ocean.
The restaurant has an attached market where a wall of tanks teem with assorted living sea creatures ' Dungeness crab, Maine lobster, bass, eel, tilapia and the like ' which is about as fresh as we'll get here in landlocked Orlando. On my initial visit, I perused the vast menu and set my sights on the most oddball dish I could find ' sesame jellyfish ($6.99). My waiter, a restless chap whose demeanor can best be described as idiosyncratic, gave me that 'are you sure you want to order that?â?� look before jotting down the order. I also had my eye on the sizzling Chilean sea bass steak ($20.99), and made my interest in the dish known, but said waiter laid his finger on my menu and pointed to the live Maine lobster ($19.99) as my dish of choice, remarking that it weighed one and a half pounds and cost $1 less than the sea bass. I conceded and he scurried off, but not before encouraging me to head to the market to select my lobster.
There, another gentleman, bright-eyed and enthusiastic, plucked out a shiny red crustacean to my satisfaction, then scampered off into the kitchen. I took a quick glance at the garroted duck suspended inside a vertical roaster before heading back to my table where, a few minutes later, a plate of fleshy strings sat before me. Let the adventure begin, I told myself, and pinched a wad of cold, shredded jellyfish between my chopsticks and commenced to chew. And chew and chew and chew. Though I was ambivalent toward the rubbery crunch of the invertebrate, which itself is largely flavorless, I found the piquant flavor of the dish, flecked with chunks of garlic and doused in vinegar and sesame oil, quite pleasing.
Then came the beautifully plated hacked-in-shell lobster. Admittedly, I had to swerve the plate a few degrees to the left to avert its beady eye from staring back at me, but after that, I reveled in the succulent, perfumed flesh, augmented further by the lightly gelatinous ginger-scallion sauce.
On another visit, the same bright-eyed fish-plucker netted a striped bass ($29.50) for me, then dumped the flapping fish into a white bucket before sliding it into a brown paper bag. When I saw it next, the bony fish was descaled, battered and fried whole to a golden crisp, as ordered. The flesh wasn't flaky, but tough, even when dipped into the overly sweet Szechuan sauce. Still, my dining companion and I enjoyed picking it apart.
That dangling roasted Peking duck ($29.99) never quite exited my consciousness and, after a single bite of the perfectly moist meat, I was glad it didn't. The skin, richly brown and intensely crisp thanks to the melting duck fat, is considered more of a delicacy than the meat in Beijing, and I can see why. My dining partner thought the breast meat was a little mealy, but most of the sliced slabs of meat were, thankfully, moist and not dry in the least.
The crispy Hong Kong-style frogs ($15.99) were a standout nibble, simultaneously exotic and accessible, so long as you have the patience to work through all the little bones. (The menu didn't say 'frogs' legs,â?� though I assume that's what we got, as the hindquarters are the only edible part of a frog.) The juicy gams were dusted with seasoned flour, sautÃ©ed and served atop a bed of shredded lettuce, topped with fried scallions and head-scratchingly hot chili peppers.
Conservative diners can get their fill of a host of familiar Chinese-American dishes ' more than 200 items are listed on the menu ' but fearless diners are the ones who leave satisfied.