Chinese Banquet 2

Chinese BanquetAs the continuation on a series on Chinese Meal and Banquets (see last two blogs), I will be writing about a Chinese Banquet that my parents and their family were invited to by a good friend of my father while we were back in Kuala Lumpur for my parents’ Golden Anniversary. Since I missed partaking in these kinds of dinners and such quality of cooking is frequently amiss outside of Asia, I did not pass up on this opportunity when inquiries were made about who wanted to join this meal gathering. Since my Australian nephew, mentioned in the last blog, was in attendance, it was an opportunity for me to reinforce what he had learned about the sequence of dishes in a Chinese Banquet.





Shrimp in Wasabi Sauce, Scallop Tempura, Chicken Mushroom Bao

Shrimp in Wasabi Sauce, Scallop Tempura, Chicken Mushroom Bao1) Appetizer: Three Seasons. Unlike my parents’ banquet, here we have a slightly abbreviated version of the usually served Four Season dish. On this occasion, we were served Shrimp and Melon with Wasabi Sauce (a Japanese influence here), Panko-breaded Scallops with Sweet and Sour Sauce (again more Japanese influence), and Chicken and Chinese Mushroom in Steamed Bun Cup. Here we see the chef’s creative streak in infusing some Japanese ingredients and technique, and updating the traditional steamed bun by making it into a cup. This is a study of contrasts in flavors, ingredients, and textures, as most banquet first-courses showcase in their platters.





Lobster and Birdnest Soup2) Soup: Lobster and Birds Nest Soup. As I mentioned in the last blog, usually Shark Fin Soup is served in banquets, but they have fallen out of favor with the current generation. As an alternative, here we were served this luscious soup made with rich lobster meat and expensive birds nest that has the same texture as shark fin. Again, the addition of Chinese black vinegar and Chinese mustard adds more taste interest to this thick soup.







Crispy Chicken and Chilled Pigs Trotters3) Protein 1: Roast Duck and Chilled Pigs Feet. Savory crispy skinned duck was paired with thin slices of deboned and poached pig feet. Again, we see a study of contrast of flavors, textures, and in this case, temperatures. I must say that the pigs feet tasted better than it sounds and I enjoyed its slightly gelatinous quality.









Tuna and Crispy Soybean Skin4) Protein 2: Tuna with Green beans and Crispy Tofu Skin. Pieces of tuna have been broiled with a thin sticky coating most likely made with some Miso paste judging by the color and taste. The crispy tofu skin was a good foil against the moist fish, along with the sweet al dente young green beans.










Abalone, Chinese Mushroom & Broccoli

Abalone, Chinese Mushroom, Broccoli.5) Vegetable/Tofu dish: Broccoli, Chinese Mushroom, and Abalone on Tofu. When this dish arrived, we marveled at its presentation as well as the amount of baby abalone, a pricey mollusk rarely served in banquets. These pieces of seafood have the texture of squid but exude a richer seafood flavor, and this rendition was perfectly cooked sitting on pieces of silky tofu stuffed with a flavorful shrimp meat paste – this was heavenly. The pieces of broccoli and Chinese mushrooms were equally well-cooked; however, they took a distant secondary role to the marvelous seafood.






Fried Rice

6) Rice/Noodle dish: Fried Rice. At this stage of a banquet, either starch is served. In the hierarchy of grains, rice takes the lower rung. Hence, this dish is a “throwaway” dish, meaning that the diner needs to fill-up with this grain before the last course. This version was well prepared but was not memorable since it was a completely mild dish. Some chefs have “exotified” this humble dish by adding dried baby white bait fish and other non-Chinese seasoning.

"Malay" Cake

Dried Longan and White Fungus in Syrup7) Dessert: “Malay” Steamed Cake & Longan, White Fungus, and Sea Coconut in Syrup. This moist steamed sponge cake is perhaps a Chinese creation a la Malay with layers interspersed with a layer of caramel, giving the cake a sweet interest. The side of sweet chilled soup was not too sweet with bits of slightly firm sea coconut, slightly bouncy white fungus, and fleshy longan fruit.

This blog ends the series on Chinese Meals and Banquets. I hope this gives one an idea of how the dishes are ordered in such meals in a logical fashion. Furthermore, I hope that the series has inspired the reader to look forward to partake in such a gastronomic delight when the opportunity arises. I wish these opportunities presented themselves to me monthly, but alas, such is life for this epicurean!

Chinese Banquet 1

50th Wedding Anniversary DinnerIn my last blog, I wrote about my family coming together from disparate parts of the world to meet up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in order to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I described the delicious dishes of first Chinese dinner that we ate on the first night together. This type of dinners was always a gastronomic highlight for me, of which I find such quality cooking missing from my experiences outside of Asia. To continue with this series, I will describe a couple of formal Chinese banquets that we were ingratiated with during our brief trip.

The first banquet took place in celebration of my parents’ Golden Anniversary. Many relatives and friends were invited to partake in such a joyous occasion, and since some were Muslim, the meal was completely halal (Muslim kosher), thus no pork was served at all. However, such dietary restriction is never in the way of good creative Chinese cooking as in their banquets. Since my nephew from Australia was sitting next to me, it was a good opportunity to explain to him the logical sequence of dishes in a banquet, very much like the order of the Chinese dinner in the last blog.

Four Seasons Appetizer

1) Appetizer: Four Seasons. In a formal banquet, the meal starts with this kind of opener, unlike a dinner. This platter holds such a name as it is a dish with four different elements that distinguish themselves in texture, flavor, and ingredient. On this day, we were served a cold spicy papaya salad, crispy soybean skin stuffed with a fragrant lemongrass filling, crispy spring rolls coated with a sweet sauce, and chicken cooked with Chinese mushrooms.

Sharks Fin Soup

2) Soup: Shark Fin Soup. This soup is almost de rigueur in a big celebratory dinner, as was in this case. The thick soup comes with fine strands of shark fin that has been cooked until it is tender. Although it has not much in terms of flavor, a good stock gives it character and body. Furthermore, a customary splash of Chinese black vinegar and English mustard (a new local trend for me) gives it some more flavor interest – this soup is a favorite of my mother. Unfortunately, this dish has fallen out of favor for many due to its unsustainable ecological practices.

Steamed Pomfret Fish

3) Protein 1: Steamed Pomfret Fish. Like the Chinese dinners, the fish is simply cooked, steamed as in this case, and paired with a light soy sauce. The diner is always looking for a fresh sweet quality from the flesh, not covered by too much or too heavy of a sauce. The fish that arrived on the table was really huge, more than enough to serve 10 guests per table.

Crispy Chicken and Shrimp Crackers

4) Protein 2: Roasted Chicken. Since the meal was halal, poultry was the obvious alternative (never beef or lamb since many Chinese find their flavors too strong for their palate). Here the meat was well-seasoned and the skin made crisp in the oven, which can be dipped in a white pepper/salt combination for more seasoning. The clouds of Shrimp Crackers are equally tasty echoing the crispy nature of the dish.

Lotus Root and Sweet Peppers

5) Vegetable/Tofu Dish: Sautéed Lotus Roots with Sweet Peppers. This was a new dish for me. Slices of fresh lotus roots have been stir-fried with sweet peppers in a light sauce. I have had this root in mostly soup dishes, but I quite enjoyed its slight crunchy texture with equally crunchy sweet peppers.

Longevity Noodles with Roasted Chicken and Chinese Mushroom

6) Noodle/Rice Dish: Longevity Noodles. This dish is a must-order in such celebrations as my parents’ anniversary. Here the noodles are paired with roasted chicken, Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and Chinese mushrooms, brought together by a light sauce. It is imperative that server does not cut into the noodles to ensure the intention of wishing the celebrants longevity in their marriage and lives together.

Sweet Lotus Seed PancakeLongan in Syrup

7) Dessert: Longan in Syrup and Lotus Seed Pancakes. This is one of my favorite banquet desserts. Fresh longan fruit has been cooked in light syrup, paired with a hot pancake with filling made from mashed lotus seeds, a divergence from the traditional use of black bean paste. In the past, this pancake was served with a hot sweet peanut soup, which I enjoyed very much. However, this was equally satisfying for its light quality, especially after so many courses.

In the next blog, I will be writing about another Chinese banquet. I hope this posting is giving you an idea what a Chinese formal entails, and how much I miss such delicious delights being away from my childhood home.


The act of eating, in my estimation, falls under three main categories beyond the physical need to nourish the body: reliving and satiating memories or conditioned gustatory habits (my ailing grand-uncle used to “get full” by watching my siblings and I devour his favorite dishes); understanding and setting reference points about peoples, cultures, or cuisines (travelling and/or discovering new ethnic and regional cuisines); and exploring new gourmet experiences much like finding the latest designer outfit or recreational drug (which food is for some, including me).  So, when I received a text message from a friend saying that she needed to use a gift voucher for the highly acclaimed restaurant Volt and a reservation had been secured, I did not hesitate or vacillate in responding, much like an alley-junkie having stumbled across the next fix.

Front Facade

Located in Frederick, MD, we drove 50 miles outside of Washington DC through scenic rolling hills and farmland in order to get to Volt before our 5:45 reservation.  Cruising through the historic downtown area, we were immediately gravitated to its quiet bucolic charm.  We managed to find parking a few feet away from the restaurant, which was immediately recognizable by its bold glaring steel letters framed by a 19th century red-brick facade.  The restaurant sits on the ground floor of the Houck Mansion, a prestigious-looking Victorian building constructed in the early 1890’s, and it commands a noble presence within its vicinity.   Volt was opened by Bryan Voltaggio before he shot to fame as the losing finalist on the popular culinary show,Top Chef.  Entering its doors, we were greeted by an army of young staffers dressed in casual suits whose formality was mocked by brown flat Converse sneakers as their footwear.  The ambience exudes luxury with the cream pale color palette from the banquette to the table cloths.  I requested a table with sufficient light for my photography, and we were escorted to a corner table close to the large arched window overlooking the street.

Screech!! You may be expecting me to be gushing by now about the dishes and this once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience.  But I will hold my review of the restaurant until the end of my presenting the courses that we chose that night.  Since the menu started at the minimum $80-per-head for four courses, we opted for this instead of the 7-course menu or the $150 Chef’s table.  Here are the dishes in order:


Amuse Bouche (complementary): Beet Macaroon stuffed with Foie Gras Mousse, topped with Apple Sauce and dusted with Cara Cara Orange Zest.

First Course 1

First Course 1: Kimchee (Noodles), Daikon Radish, Chicken Thigh, Quail Egg, Basil (Oil).

First Course 2

First Course 2: Salsify, Quince, Country Ham, Hazelnut (Dust).

Second Course 1

Second Course 1: Turbot, Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprout(s), Radish.

Second Course 2

Second Course 2: Sweetbreads, Sunchoke, Black Kale, Bacon.

Third Course 1

Third Course 1: Sturgeon, Toasted Barley, Broccoli (Puree), Lemon Pith.

Third Course 2

Third Course 2: Lobster, Black Forbidden Rice, Coconut (Sauce), Madras Curry.

Pre Dessert

Pre-Dessert (complementary): Parsnip Cake, Cheesecake Ice-cream, Applesauce, Walnut crumble.

Dessert 1

Dessert 1: Coconut (Ice-cream), Black Sesame (Cake), Pineapple, Banana (Sauce).

Dessert 2

Dessert 2: Chocolate (Mousse), Marshmallow, Peanut (Ice-cream), Caramel.

Post Dessert
Post-Dessert (complimentary): Macaroons, Lemon Merengue, Pomegranate Jelly, Chocolate Truffles.


I have been sitting at my computer for some time struggling to form my thoughts about how to objectively assess the food and the dining experience at Volt with all the knowledge and acumen that I have in this regard.  Ultimately, I have to resort to my gut feelings and the overall lingering impressions, without too much of a cerebral filter, in order to continue writing this review.

Firstly, I must admit that during the meal, I was rarely excited about the dishes and the way the ingredients were treated.  It was already a bit off-putting that the menu was quite allusive as it only alluded to the essences of the ingredients, and not the manner they were cooked or presented as part of the whole picture – notice the parenthesis in the descriptions that showed the lack of clarity on the menu.   I believe that as diners, we usually get sated by filling up on quantity and/or by the saturation of flavorings and gustatory (that word again) excitement – the former was only fulfilled during this meal by the reordering of the bread basket and the amount of sugar from the four servings of desserts, which my companion and I thought fared the best.  But that is really just carbohydrate and sugar!!

Secondly, there were some serious and some rudimentary missteps in some of the dishes.  The opener of the Beet Macaroon paired with the Foie Gras Mousse did not “amuse my mouth” except saturate my palate with a mineral quality found in both ingredients; the dusting of the Cara Cara Orange zest did nothing to the dish nor could one discern this specific hybrid.  The Kimchee Noodles did not have a single hint of the fermented vegetable, even when surrounded by an extremely mild broth; the chicken thigh did not contribute any flavor factor to elevate the dish beyond a flatline.  The two meager slivers of Country Ham barely left a footprint on my tongue nor did it speak of any exceptional quality.   The Sweetbreads was seared on the outside but completely raw (not rare) inside, and my companion literally pushed her plate away after the first bite (I think this put her on the potty for a few days); I sent the dish back to be recooked and it came back barely cooked enough – no reputable kitchen would serve a raw organ meat in this manner as we were that night!   The Sturgeon fillet was overcooked and it had the consistency of a moist pork chop – unforgivable for seafood, especially from this calibre of fine dining.  The Madras Curry sauce in the Lobster course was a total misnomer as its flavor had no hint of South Asian spices.  The Black Sesame Cake tasted of Chinese food from the crushing of the black seeds that released the oil which permeated the whole cake (toasted seeds are rarely crushed in Asian desserts for this reason) – my companion and I were nibbling at it as glutton for punishment as we tried to wrap our brain around this “culinary joke”.

Lastly, the service was efficient and professional.  But puhlease, I have not seen so many anally-retentive young people in a long time.  The attempt to provide high-end service only came across as characterless, unamiable, and after some time plastic.  All this did was reinforce the lack of soul and connection my companion and I got from the dishes and the experience.  I tried to joke with a couple of them but all I got back was silence or a are-you-serious chuckle – maybe they were not used to my remarks and dishes that were being sent back to the kitchen (I’m not easily intimidated by food or fine dining establishments, unlike some diners I noticed there).  The staff need to lighten up!

Whew! I got that out my chest now.  Normally, I would not do a write-up that would trash a food establishment.  Perhaps my struggles with this review is partly the above and my sense of obligation to write honestly about my experience at one of the area’s finest restaurants.  I could have been one of those diners and tourists sitting at the $150 Chef’s table, mesmerized by the high-tech hoopla, bells and whistles, and the hype that this restaurant has garnered.  Not me.

Volt on Urbanspoon

Sushi Taro – Kaiseki Tasting Menu

Recently, I wrote a review on Maruko Japanese Restaurant, a popular sushi restaurant located in Arlington, VA, as I am fond of good and fresh seafood prepared in the Japanese fashion.  While I receive many internet coupons for various sushi restaurants, I pretty much delete them right away since sushi is one food item that I do not take chances with or play some form of culinary Russian Roulette.  However, I snatched up an offer that appeared a few weeks back for a Kaiseki Tasting Menu, and I managed to experience it for the first time at Sushi Taro, a reputable traditional Japanese restaurant located in the Dupont Circle area of DC.

Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dinner that consists of numerous dishes that show off the cook’s refined culinary skills and the seasonality of the ingredients.  It is an art form that balances the “taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.”  Beautiful dishes and bowls are chosen to present the small servings  in order to complement and enhance the eating experience.  Even leaves and flowers are added to imbue the sense of nature and its bounty.

Each serving is self-contained in its theme and sensory evocations.  I will present each course very much in a Zen mode – simple, direct and unadulterated.

First Course - Aperitif

First Course – Aperitif:                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Sweet  sake-like “Kinkan” wine with half of a sweet and citrus Kumquat as a chaser.

Second Course - Tsukidashi

Second Course – Tsukidashi:                                                                                                                                                                                                   Gelatinous “Goma” Tofu made from Sesame seeds paired with fermented Soy Beans and briny creamy Sea Urchin, swimming in a light Dashi broth.

Third Course - Appe

Third Course – Appe:                                                                                                                                                                                                          Tender and crispy Bamboo Shoot Tempura and Lotus Root Dumpling (Agedashi) in a light soy sauce infused with a slice of Lemon.

Fourth Course - Sashimi

Fourth Course – Sashimi:                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Thin and mildly delicate slivers of Live Flounder (I assume the flounder was alive just before its filleting).

Fifth Course - Soup

Fifth Course – Soup:                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Tender and crunchy “Wakatake” Bamboo shoots, Snapper Cake, and mineral-like fresh “Wakame” Seaweed in a light broth.

Sixth Course - Hassun

Sixth Course – Hassun:                                                                                                                                                                                                               Battered Fish Cake, Grilled Fresh Anchovy, Fish Roe, Rice-stuffed Ginko Nuts, Smoked Salmon Ball, Crabmeat Jelly, braised Octopus Tentacle, Sweet Cake, Sea Snail, Tuna in Mayonnaise.  Fresh and sweet treasures of the ocean.

Seventh Course - Imobou

Seventh Course – Imobou:                                                                                                                                                                                                                Salty shards of “Boudara” Dry Cod wrapped in smooth “Yuba” Soybean Skin paired with a soft and light Yam Dumpling in a light sweet sauce.

Eighth Course - Yakimono

Eighth Course – Yakimono:                                                                                                                                                                                                          Tender well-marbled Australian “Wagyu” beef, moist and flaky “Gindara” Black Cod, with chewy and gelatinous Konnyaku Starch bites, simmered in Red Miso on Magnolia Leaf and burning coals.

Ninth Course - Sushi

Ninth Course – Sushi:                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Braised Octopus Tentacle, sweet tender raw Scallop, and soy-marinated raw Tuna.

Tenth Course - Dessert

Tenth Course – Dessert:                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Green Tea “Hoji-cha” flan-like Pudding with a sweet-burnt Caramel Sauce.

This write-up is not necessarily a review on the strengths or weakness of Sushi Taro Restaurant but more a recounting of a fantastic gourmand’s experience of a Japanese multi-course meal.  If the refinement of this Kaiseki meal and the large presence of Japanese executives with their underlings in the restaurant are used as a barometer of the authenticity and skill level of the kitchen, I will be back in the future to sample its regular fare, beyond the $80-per-person menu (before the 50% coupon – thank Buddha for it) that I savored with true delight.   Another Oishi exclamation here.

Sushi Taro on Urbanspoon