The path to the main dining area is a little odd. In order to reach it you first pass through a softly lit corridor lined with some very attractive areas -- some rooms for private dining along one side, and on the other a few small tables for two. It raises expectations for that rare experience -- Chinese food in an elegant setting -- which, when you do reach it, makes the plain and harshly lit dining room all the more surprising.
Actually it is far from bare bones -- nothing that gentler lighting and some colourful artifacts on the bare walls wouldn't soften significantly. In any case we don't go to Chinese restaurants for decor, and what brought us to Lan May was the prospect of its locally rare Taiwanese specialties, many of which were good enough to make us forget about the lighting and the walls.
Most of the items on the menu will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in Cantonese or Northern Chinese restaurants, and they go for similar prices, with appetizers from $3.50 to $6.95, and entrees from $9.95 to $14.95. But if, like me, you've come for the Taiwanese specialties, ask for guidance -- this is one of those typically long Chinese menus and there are few signs on it to help (some, but by no means all, are listed under Specialties). We asked, and were rewarded with some wonderful dishes.
One of the best was rice vermicelli tossed with sesame paste and tiny bits of pork, with an underlying bite that sneaks up on you. It looked like an ordinary mass of vermicelli, but turned out to be one of those seductive dishes we just couldn't stop eating.
I can't recommend the stewed prawns with wine (possibly authentic, but with a medicinal taste) but we loved the fabulous Mandarin shrimp, a huge serving of big, plump ones that popped juicily between our teeth -- unbattered and unbreaded, coated simply in some kind of starch and deep-fried, with a zingy hot and tart finish of vinegar and bits of chili peppers.
We also had two great chicken dishes. Taiwanese Fried Chicken comes in either an appetizer portion or as a full entree -- addictive little nuggets of marinated breast meat coated, not with bread crumbs or a batter, but with a paste based on sweet-potato starch, which delivers a superb crunch and wonderful flavour.
The other was simply called House Chicken, an innocuous name for a terrific dish -- chunks of the bird (on the bone, mercifully, for maximum flavour), braised in wine, aromatic with garlic and even more so with ginger.
There seems to be an occasional Korean influence, i.e. in the wee saucers of such banchan as kimchi and spicy turnip. We didn't try those, but we did have the delicately dressed slices of cucumber. And an entree of Palace Beef should have been subtitled bulgogi -- slices of steak stir-fried with heaps of slivered onions in a sweetened soy sauce and dusted with sesame seeds. It was tender and good, but if I'd known it was Korean I'd have opted for another of the Taiwanese dishes I'd come for.
The platters of cold simmered meats do seem to be more typical -- at least the only other place I've had them was in another Taiwanese restaurant. They can be ordered individually or, as we did, on a four-item sampler, comprising beef, pork liver, pork tongue and pork ear, all savoury and good, although the really chewy, gelatinous strips of pork ear may not be to everyone's taste.
Not everything that was good was specifically Taiwanese -- Mapo Tofu, for instance, silken, almost custard-soft tofu and bits of pork in a just-this-side of incendiary chili and bean paste. Or Chun King Pork, a zesty mixture of crisply fried slices of pork belly, cabbage, mushrooms and dried tofu, with a hint of chili in the sweetish hoisin-based sauce.
Boiled pork dumplings -- smaller than the pan-fried kind (which are also available) -- were juicy, tender and delicate in flavour, actually tasting a lot like Siberian pelmeni; they needed a splash of vinegar (my preference) or soy sauce, or both. Mooshi with pork was more complex than most, with a greater mix of vegetables than usual but needing more hoisin sauce for flavouring than the wee saucerful we got. On the other hand, the crepes were spectacular -- puffy and almost lacy light, unlike any I've ever had elsewhere.
Hand-pulled noodles were glorious, but I wish we'd been able to have them in a dish that did them justice. A cold noodle appetizer tossed with sesame paste and slices of chicken wasn't bad but it was under-seasoned. And the noodles were even more wasted in a hot-sour soup that was neither hot nor sour, and gummy to boot. A better soup choice (with no noodles, alas) was the Taiwanese meatball soup -- a clear, peppery broth with a dense and tasty pork meatball.
Lan May is a family-run place -- a particularly pleasant family who knock themselves out to please.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.