Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wonton Gourmet: Fab-u-lous!

To me, Wonton Gourmet is like sushi. I can go for months without even entertaining the thought of sushi and then one day, WHAM! I can think of having nothing else but sushi. In very much the same light, when I get a craving for really good, authentic Chinese cuisine, I have found nothing better satisfies that craving than Wonton Gourmet, located on the corner of East 32nd and Payne near downtown Cleveland. Their particular cuisine is Hunan style, so nothing is overtly spicy, although there is always chili flakes in oil on the table as a condiment.

Last Sunday, having finished my lovely gelato, I suddenly got such a craving. I called up a few of my Cleveland friends and suddenly we had a lovely dinner party for five people. We descended on the restaurant around 6 pm and were warmly greeted by several members of the staff who recognized several members of our dining group. Normally when a group of non-Asians walks through the door, the first thing they normally put down on the table are forks. For us, they put down the standard chopsticks. While you can simply go by yourself, it is much more fun for a group because of all the dishes you can share.

There are actually three menus from which you can order. Two of them have English translations, but the third one, the daily specials, are written on placards that hang on the wall. For those, you must ask for the translation (or as my smart friend Stuart did, take a photo of the characters, post the photo on Flickr, and invite people to actually post notes on the photo with the translation). Since our group had gone at a very slow time during the day, it wasn't too big of a deal to ask for their time in translating whatever we needed.

We ordered dishes from all three menus. First we started with a fish maw and conpoy soup, served with red vinegar.

I have had this before and it is really, really delicious. The soup all by itself is really a well balanced soup. The red vinegar adds a touch of acidity and sweetness (kind of like a balsamic vinegar would). I was actually thinking of having a second bowl of soup when this arrived:

These are fried rice noodle rolls with soy sauce. Incredibly delicious, they are crispy and warm and soft all at the same time. Eaten with some chili oil (which is to the left of the photo), our table quickly gobbled these up. Next up were the house made turnip cakes, which unfortunately I did not get a photo of. I think there are two things I would ALWAYS order if I have a meal here: the turnip cakes and the chive potstickers, pictured here:

These are probably some of the best (and most consistent) potstickers I've ever had at any restaurant. And so fresh. So, at this point, the soup and appetizers are out of the way. Now come the main courses. First up, clams with spicy black bean sauce (towards the back of the photo):

This was spooned over white rice and was quite good. Another member of our group who had eaten the black bean sauce before said this one wasn't quite as good as she remembered, but I thought it was delicious nonetheless. Next up was was a dish that was hanging on the wall menu, braised pork belly with pickles.

This was very soft and tender and the pork did melt in your mouth, but this wasn't the best preparation of pork belly I've ever had. The "pickles" were nice though. If that weren't enough food already, we placed an order for the fried pork chops.

The pork was nicely fried (it wasn't greasy at all), but to me the pork was a little dry. It was served with slices scallions and chilis, but it didn't have a sauce, per se, so it didn't make too much sense to eat this over rice. Finally, (getting full yet?) on the recommendation of our server, we placed an order for fried fish and Japanese tofu. The "scallops" in the photo are actually the tofu, which they somehow managed to sear. I thought this one was good, but it didn't blow me away. Perhaps because we had all reached our gustatory limits.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, how much did this ravenous feast cost? After filling your belly with the most amazing food, you can now fill your brain with the wonderful thought that all of this food, without tip, was a mere $14.40 per person. And we had leftovers to take home. Truly, truly amazing.

Needless to say, my craving for Hunan style Chinese cuisine has now been quenched. I'm kind of glad I live far enough away to make it sort of an effort to get to Wonton Gourmet. I think if I lived in Cleveland, I'd be eating there ALL the time.

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