Gung hei fat choy -- Happy New Year, according to one translation, or wishing you prosperity, according to another. In any case, the Year of the Horse -- a rocky year, according to some predictions -- brought me luck in my hunt for a Chinese New Year dinner. Different forms of the dinner are offered in a few other restaurants, but I was looking for one that would go on long enough (about a month), so readers could take advantage of this report, and one that wasn't intended for a minimum of 10 people only.
Summer Palace fulfilled all my wishes, coming up with proposals for a sumptuous banquet, and needing only a few days notice (arranged anonymously, incidentally). One of the reasons I chose it was for the relative tranquility of the bi-level space, another was because of the 4 1/2 stars I'd awarded it a few years ago, and a third was because of the management's flexibility and co-operation. Yes, they do offer a set, multi-course meal for 10 at $338 -- the easiest way to order, if there are 10 of you -- but although we were to be only four, we were allowed to choose the dishes we wanted on an a la carte basis. Not only that, although the New Year's specials will be featured for about a month, any of the special dishes can be pre-ordered at any time.
Our first dish was a fabulous platter of shrimp rolls circled by slices of cuttlefish. The nori-wrapped rolls were filled with shrimp, a strip of scallion and a wee bit of imitation crab (not enough to bother me). The slightly sesame-scented cuttlefish had a firm texture and a delicate flavour quite different from its cousin, the squid ($20).
Another stunner was the huge crab and shrimp balls, i.e. chopped shrimp surrounding nuggets of crab meat, with little crab claws sticking out as a convenient handle ($6 per ball). With them came an intriguingly sticky mayonnaise spread. Less dramatic but equally satisfying was a cold dish of poached free-range chicken -- chunks of moist, flavourful white meat on the bone, topped by chewy strips of jellyfish, and accompanied by a subtle dip of ginger and scallions ($15).
Almost every dish has a symbolic meaning, and I could only track down some of them (not all the descriptions agreed). I was surprised by the absence of noodles on some of the other New Year menus -- I'd always thought they were traditional. However, I've since learned that traditions vary in different areas of China: uncut noodles (signifying long life, in the south); dumplings (signifying wealth or luck, in the north). We got both, steamed dumplings with a gingery filling of pork and lotus root (on the house), and noodles with a terrific texture, achieved by frying them before boiling. They came as a bed for a stir fry of gingery, garlicky lobster, which the manager was kind enough to purchase for us, charging only $15 for the cooking, over the $26 Superstore price. We might have chosen an entire fish, which symbolizes either abundance or a good start and a good end to the year (depending on the reference), but we decided that substituting a whole lobster wouldn't be cheating.
We also had a massive platter of sticky rice -- the kind that is rolled in lotus leaves in dim sum houses, but with a deeper and far superior flavour to any I've had before, liberally dotted with salty-sweet bits of Chinese bacon and sausage, as well as dark Chinese mushrooms ($20). We also had a soup dubbed sharks' fin, but it was in name only -- a mellow chicken soup with bits of chicken, fish maw and translucent bean vermicelli -- not as full-flavoured as the other dishes, but a zap of Chinese red vinegar made a difference ($15). We ended with a cold and refreshing on-the-house sweet red bean soup with rice balls stuffed with ground black sesame seed.
Before making my New Year's reservation I did a dry run with some dishes on the regular menu, to make sure that the 4 1/2 stars of a few years ago were still warranted. They were, and those who aren't up for the special dinner will do splendidly with Summer Garden's regular entrées ($9.95 to $13.95). Take the succulent Taiwanese three cups chicken, for instance, so named because it is stewed in one cup each of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil (it isn't particularly oily, but does have bit of a kick from chili flakes). Other musts are beef tenderloin sautéed with two kinds of mushrooms and green beans, shrimp with gai lan, a hot pot of eggplant with bits of pork and flavourful fried lamb slices with cumin seeds. Two familiar old standards were also excellent -- perfectly balanced hot sour soup with heaps of good ingredients (and, blissfully, little or no starch thickening), and even that westernized cliché, sweet and sour pork with pineapple, which was lightly battered, not in the least cloying, and delicious.
Our bill for four came to $152, including taxes but plus tip, but the portions were gargantuan, and would easily have served six hefty or eight normal appetites. Service was wonderful. The entire staff seemed so pleased by our interest in the traditional dishes; a golden rule to remember when hoping for the best a Chinese kitchen has to offer.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.