Too often, a Chinese restaurant is evaluated only in terms of what is printed on the menu. In reality, the chef, or chefs, may be capable of much more. And what seems only a simple neighborhood restaurant can, if given the opportunity, produce a meal that calls to mind banquet fare in Taipei or Hong Kong.
One example is Liu Fu, also called My Brother's Chinese Sea Food Restaurant, which now hides in a shopping mall in Northridge and previously inhabited a mall in Sepulveda. Three years of Chinese New Year banquets there have brought forth wonderful food. And one wonders how many other neighborhood Chinese restaurants can rise to such heights.
The New Year banquets were hosted not by the restaurant but by a Chinese client who brings together a table of celebrants each year. Elaborate cold platters, fanciful vegetable carvings and a lavish variety of good dishes have marked each party. Last year there was a delightful soup that mingled young leaves of the pea vine with abalone, chicken, ham and asparagus. This year's delicate winter melon soup came in a melon notched and intricately carved with characters that conveyed luck and success.
Last year's platter decorations included a figure of ET, carved from a carrot. This year, carrots were turned into a graceful Chinese junk with translucent carrot sails and oars of slim carrot tips mounted on wooden sticks. The junk sailed between islands of kung pao squid and kung pao scallops.
The opening "Phoenix Arrival" cold platter was marked by a bit of American improvisation, the addition of Swiss cheese to the thin slices of black mushroom and ham that formed the Phoenix bird's ruffly wings. Duck meat, squid, abalone, cuttlefish, shrimp, century eggs and baby corn also figured in the platter. What made this dish so good was the parade of dipping sauces that accompanied it. One was based on soy sauce, another on sesame oil, and a third on sha cha sauce, which is a Chinese-style barbecue sauce made with fish and beans. The fourth was an outrageously red and irresistibly flavored sweet tomato sauce.
A Chinese banquet is far from a matter of company manners and formality. This year we let down our hair, coated our fingers and spotted our clothes with wonderfully gloppy and luxurious finger food--lobster in black bean sauce and crab cooked with ginger and garlic. These were joined by clams in the same wine and sugar-seasoned bean sauce used with the lobster.
Although this is the Year of the Ox, we had no beef, unlike last year when the menu included sesame beef with long beans. The fried whole fish with sweet-sour sauce served one year was replaced this time with a novel simulation of a whole fish, called "two-flavor gray sole." Only the carcass of the sole remained in one piece. Deep-fried to a crisp, it functioned as a platter for the flesh, which was cut into chunks and sauteed.
Still more dishes were Shanghai shrimp, baked with green pepper and green onion in a foil packet; hotly seasoned minced chicken to eat wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves, and a mixed vegetable platter brightened by cooked tomatoes.
One cannot walk into a restaurant and order such a meal without warning. However, Timmy Chu, who owns Liu Fu, says he needs only one day's notice. As an extra touch, Chu even supplied new chopsticks, marked "I love Chinese Food," the word "love" represented by a heart, for the New Year celebration.
Liu Fu, My Brother's Chinese Sea Food Restaurant, located in a shopping mall at 9250 Reseda Blvd., Northridge. Phone (818) 886-0789 or (818) 886-0790. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Takes Visa and MasterCard. Reservations for four or more.