Chinese food-lovers (like you and me) rejoice! There's a magnificent new restaurant in Westfield's Century City Mall serving authentic (really!) Sichuan food, the spicy, garlicky-delicious food of that province in China. They're even bringing in shifts of chefs every three months from their Chinese home base to keep it fresh and innovative. So now we have a terrific upscale alternative to Moon House at Santa Monica Blvd. and Sepulveda and Hop Woo at Olympic and Sepulveda. MEIZHOU DONGPO (10250 Santa Monica Blvd, #200A, (310) 788-0120) is its name, which I'll explain subsequently, and here's my tip on the best way to get to it. Go in the mall entrance at Century Park West right off the corner and park next to Gelson's. Take the elevator or escalator up to the second floor and there it is... right before the AMC theatres and in front of the food court. It's a stunning, large building with indoor and patio seating for more than a hundred, and on weekends it gets plenty busy, with many of the town's hip Chinese population already clued in to the excellence of the new place. The dynamic J.P. Villa, is a veteran manager and has trained his mixed staff well, so service is efficient and quick. But the food is the star here, and my recent visits have illustrated that they have not compromised the dishes for Western tastes, not at all.
My first lunch was with Davide Vedovelli, the talented Italian chef of Toscanova down the mall, and we tasted a half-dozen dishes, all excellent. They don't have a take-out menu printed yet but I wheedled JP to allow me to take home the elaborate menu printed in China, and I circled a handful of dishes for my subsequent visits. (They are open for lunch and dinner every day, opening at 11:30 am and serving until 9 pm on weekdays and a little later on weekends.) The house specialty is the Meizhou Roasted Duck, which costs $68 for a full bird and $38 for a half. It is their version of Peking Duck, somewhat leaner, more crispy, and is carved at the table by a skilled chef wielding a razor-sharp cleaver. It comes with a bamboo steamer containing large round thin rice pancakes, along with scallion, cucumber and carrot slivers, their version of hoisin sauce, and -- interestingly -- a small dish of sugar (which my experienced waiter, Andrew, told me some Chinese people like to sprinkle on the duck to bring out the flavor.) Davide and I eagerly consumed a half-bird and he commented that it was leaner than most other versions, the meat darker, the skin crispier. I took the other half home for dinner that night. Luscious.
There was a sheet of "daily specials," and we ordered several dishes from it. One, Pork Hock ($19) was so extraordinary that we were stunned into silence as it arrived from the kitchen and a waiter carved it off the bone into its spicy sauce. Bowls of rice were sought ($1 each) and we dug into the fatty, rich pork with its ginger sauce. You have an option of getting it mild or spicy; always go for the latter. We had begun our meal with bowls of Oxtail Soup ($9), and commented on the weak broth and chunks of savory oxtail (which I love.) Their Hot and Sour Soup ($3.50) is absolutely addictive, pork, egg, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and tomato in broth. We spotted offerings of Braised Duck Wings and Duck Feet on the specials menu, stewed with 15 spices, and then had the Brined Wings and Feet ($5) and the Fried Duck Wings ($8) with a nice mustard sauce. I mentioned that I thought Chicken Feet had more meat on them than these, but we gnawed away until they were gone. A neighbor was eating the Garlic Chicken Wings ($8) and nodded his pleasure to me. Other appetizers I have enjoyed are the Garlic Pork Ribs ($9), the Crispy Fish ($15) and their famous Meizhous Dongpo Sausage ($18). This dish won a gold medal among the many dishes served at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
We wanted to sample the dumplings and ordered the Sichuan version ($6), four plump delicious ones in a spicy red sauce. (Note: they spell the Province name Sichuan, although I have always preferred Szechuan... but I figure they must know something I don't since they are from there.) Other specials are: Double-Cooked Pork ($18) and Spicy Hot Pot ($22). Their version of the traditional Dan Dan Noodles ($6) is one of the best I have ever had, served in a sesame chili broth, with ground pork, scallions and peanuts. You will be pleasantly surprised if you order the Sliced Pork Ear ($11), it is soft and succulent, sliced paper thin. Kung Pao Chicken ($15) is fine, wok-fried in a sweet, savory and spicy sauce with dried chiles and peanuts, but I am not a fan of anything sweet and sour, so I prefer the Chongqing Spicy Chicken ($18), crispy fried with dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Yet to be tried is the Chestnut Chicken ($18), stewed in dark soy sauce with fresh chestnuts.
Seafood is a specialty of Sichuan cooking, and there are a handful of spectacular dishes I can recommend: Sole Fillet ($22), the fresh fillet stewed with scallions. Sauteed Shrimps with scallion ($23) is my particular favorite, and wow, a large Maine Lobster Tail, 18 oz. of juicy shellfish worth the $48 it costs. It is wok-fried with ginger and scallions, in a light sweet sauce. Bangbang Chicken ($12) is chilled and sliced with soy, sesame and chili sauce. Serrano Beef ($18) is thinly-sliced and wok fried with fresh Serrano chilies, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns.
Dongpo Pork ($9 per person) is a classic here, and you will understand why when you taste it, the belly braised in a savory ginger sauce with bok choy. Every place has the standard Mapo Tofu ($14) but none is like this....spicy ground pork atop soft, melting tofu. One day I just wanted one simple dish and ordered the Dongpo Bowl ($16), but there was nothing simple about it...just a large bowl of savory goodness, crispy pork and meatballs, with veggies in a rich broth. And every restaurant in this city has a Pork Belly dish, but you have never had it until this one: Dongpo Pork Belly ($18) is braised, sliced, served on a bed of Napa cabbage with preserved mustard greens. Wonderful. They feature another beef dish, the Wagyu Beef with Grilled Vegetables ($48), 12 oz. of USDA prime strip loin, seasoned with sea salt and seared to medium-rare, served with fried corn and pumpkin. Worth every penny. I was so intrigued by the name of one dish that I ordered it, and was happy I did so. It was Sichuan Heartbreakers ($10), yellow pea noodles with a spicy dressing. If anyone is looking for a salad (certainly not me), there is a House Salad ($16), fresh seasonal organic vegetables with an Asian vinaigrette. All dishes are served family style, and the portions are very generous.
I love eating Chinese vegetables, and here they are as special as everything else. You must try the Eggplant in Garlic Sauce ($16), the veggie is cooked until melting soft and sauced with the spicy ground pork it deserves. There's a Marinated Cucumber ($9) I have not tried, but I love their treatment of Sichuan Green Beans ($4). Asparagus, tofu, broccoli, all are here and good. I mentioned the Sichuan dumplings, but they have a half-dozen different versions of dumplings and buns, all with thin supple skins and enticing fillings. Steamed Vegetable Dumplings will be the best $4 you have ever spent.
Wines by the glass and bottle, all standard brands and modestly priced. Only two expensive champagnes, so I told JP he should order some of my favorite, the Laetitia Brut Cuvee, which goes so well with spicy Chinese food. Lots of sake choices, two Soju-tinis, pomegranate and lychee, a few beers. FIJI WATER, yes, $4 for a 500 ml bottle. I told you these were wise people.
My Huffington readers may recall that I recently reviewed an exotic Chinese hot pot restaurant, Hai di Lao, in Arcadia, and learned it was the first American branch of a successful chain of a hundred outlets in China. Which is exactly the same here: Meizhou Dongpo is the first American branch of a very successful 16-year old Chinese restaurant chain with a hundred outlets there. From what I gather, they are extremely proud of the fact that they provided the food for the Olympic Village in 2008. Their Chairman is Wang Gang and his wife, Ms. Di Liang, is CEO. A little background research on Google told me that Mr. Wang, the founder of the chain, had worked as a young man apprenticing to a famous 'President's Chef,' Here's an amazing note: they are the first restaurant chain in China to ban smoking on the premises! If you know anything about the Chinese, you know how much they love to smoke. I was just told that they are opening a second California branch in Arcadia in early 2015. As I mentioned, they bring in a new shift of chefs every three months and I met several, all smiling, young and cordial, with almost no English.
The manager, JP Villa, had filled me in on the remarkable background of this startling new restaurant, first telling me that it was 3,000 years ago that the Chinese invented chopsticks and it was 2,000 years ago that Sichuan cuisine was established. In 1037 Su Dongpo, a Meizhou native, created the delicious Dong Po food we have here. It was in 1996 that our man from Meizhou built Meizhou Dongpo in Beijing, and it was in 2008 that it achieved international fame by catering the food for the Olympic Village. The chairman said that this event became a very proud part of their tradition.
I suspect you will be sending me paeans of praise after you have visited here, although I may have gone overboard in praising this extraordinary Chinese eatery. But I am so thrilled that a beautiful, authentic Sichuan restaurant has opened just ¼ mile from my Beverly Hills home that I can be excused. What a wonderful way to begin the Year of the Horse.
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