Restaurant Reviews :
A Note in 2006: Mei Long closed last year, perhaps a result of its unfortunate location. I will keep this review online for historical reference.
by Robert Rich, February 2003, for MV Voice
Americans have generally accepted the idea of European high cuisine, and we sometimes willingly pay premium prices for an artfully prepared meal. Yet we typically relegate Chinese food to the bargain basement, expecting little more than a cheap wholesome casual feed.
For almost seven years, Mei Long has been raising our expectations of what Chinese high cuisine can offer. Chef-partner Renyi Liu presents exquisitely balanced creative dishes, steeped in the tradition of Eastern Chinese (Yang Zhou) cooking.
Liu studied in Shanghai, then in New York at the Culinary Institute (CIA) before returning home to cook at Shanghai's century-old Mei Long restaurant. When he came to California he named his new venue after the prestigious restaurant where he worked, whose name means "Plum Flower Dragon."
Mei Long's calm classy interior hides behind a humble El Camino storefront. I confess I felt a bit disoriented when I first tried Mei Long several years ago. When the server seated us with a focused prix fixe menu, accompanied with wine pairing suggestions and a short list of hors d'oeuvres, I realized that the generic location camouflaged a most extraordinary restaurant.
An Education in Dining
Co-owner Grace Zhou admitted recently that she has slowly tired of her ongoing efforts to educate new customers about traditional high cuisine in China. A few years ago, Mei Long started extending its menu with a more predictable selection of main courses, served family style if desired.
Yet Mei Long still proudly declares its uniqueness. Its menu retains its special chef's selections, its excellent wine list and pairing suggestions. When you order from the prix fixe menu, individually plated servings still arrive in sculptural balance, with equally delicate textures and flavors.
When I visited Mei Long recently, I asked the server about items on the extended menu. She recommended that we skip the standard dishes and choose from the chef's selections in order to appreciate Mei Long's strengths.
I liked our server's pride in chef Liu's skills, and I appreciated her efforts to ensure that we had a special dining experience. A well-trained waiter can help guide diners towards a better meal. We followed her recommendations.
A Balance of Textures
The combination appetizer plate ($5.50/person) includes a breaded fried shrimp, butterfly cut with crushed almond batter; two small crab cakes, delicate with green onion accents; and a light cabbage-filled egg roll. A deep red dollop of sweet & sour sauce adds accent. Its sweetness and color derive from dried fruit purée, not from the standard sugar and food coloring. Each item has a light crispy texture and subtle flavor.
Tofu "goose" ($5.95) offers a vegetarian answer to meat textures, with strong five-spice flavors infusing firm layered skins of fried tofu, offset by crunchy wraps of pickled cabbage and shredded carrot.
The lettuce petals ($9.95) make a striking visual appearance. Four hemispheres of carefully hollowed heads of iceberg lettuce hold a warm stir-fried concoction of finely minced chicken, celery, black mushrooms, carrots, and jicama (imitating the texture of water chestnuts.)
A light sweet sauce permeates the chicken blend, and crisp accents of nuts and fried rice-sticks augment the cool crunch of the lettuce. Although employing simple ingredients, the lettuce petals show great sensitivity to texture and presentation.
Soup as Art
Soups can prove challenging to present artfully; however, a soup can highlight flavor combinations blended over time. Mei Long's soups arrive in single serving bowls, priced individually.
The deluxe wonton soup ($3.95) shows a subtle and classy take on this traditional combination of dumplings and broth. The wontons taste succulent with pork and green onion filling. Additional slivers of barbecued pork, carrot, zucchini and shrimp accompany the wontons with a sweet fresh pea pod in the savory stock.
The Youngchow tofu julienne soup ($4.95) features feathery hand-cut "noodles" of tofu, with shrimp, black mushrooms, ham, pea sprouts and a hint of spice. The texture feels smooth and delicate in the mouth.
The seafood supreme consomme ($5.95) has beautiful deep flavors, my favorite among the soups. An earthy opalescent broth swirls around two sweet shrimp, two scallops and a New Zealand mussel. Specks of ginger add piquant points while fresh sweet peas add sweetness. The broth lingers with velvety hints of black mushrooms and aged vinegar.
The menu recommends pairing this soup with a dry Oloroso Spanish sherry ($4). I tasted the soup after a sip of Moshin Vineyards Pinot Noir ($6.50/glass), which also paired well; yet sherry better accentuates the soft earthiness of the shiitake-scented broth.
Mei Long's main courses look their best when each person receives individually plated dishes, yet presentations also show sculptural sensitivity when platters come family-style.
Baked sea scallops ($14.95) arrive in three small nests made from egg-roll wrappers. Each nest holds a scallop with green and red pepper slices, black mushrooms and tiny crumbs of pork and hot peppers, drizzled with a light sweet soy-based sauce, on a bed of crisp shredded cabbage. The flavors offset the delicate scallops without overpowering them.
Eggplant croquettes ($10.95) come stuffed with minced pork, lightly breaded and flash fried to create a fine crisp skin. Seven croquettes surround five dumplings in the center of the plate, bathed in a pool of musky Yu Shiang reduction sauce. The sauce tastes reminiscent of a French-style Madeira reduction with subtle undercurrents of garlic.
Chicken breast in ginger and vinegar sauce ($11.95) alone could form a well-rounded meal, julienned with vegetables and bathed in a comfortably seasoned sauce. Two mounds of sweet spinach with a rice ball and pickled beet complete the plate.
The beef with caramelized onion in black pepper sauce on a sizzling plate ($10.95) pairs well with a glass of Chateau Souverin Cabernet Sauvignon ($7). Slices of crisp sweet peppers and onions join strips of lean beef in a salted corn-starch based sauce redolent of black pepper.
The braised duckling in red wine scallion sauce and pea sprouts ($13.95) may be my favorite main course at Mei Long. Two duck legs and thighs fall off the bone, yet they don't taste fatty. Strips of green onions and sweet sprouts accompany a seductive thick reduction sauce of duck drippings, mirepoix infusion and red wine.
The menu recommends pairing the duck with Chateauneuf du Pape Dom du Vieux Lazaret ($7.50). Indeed, the floral tones of Syrah and Grenache grapes in the Rhone wine accentuate the sweet perfumes of the duck, with a lightness that cleanses the palate.
Mei Long's thoughtful wine-pairing efforts teach an interesting lesson in the balancing of flavors. Big red wines can easily overpower delicate Chinese cuisine. Light wines with some residual sweetness and crisp acidity often complement this food best.
Mei Long offers desserts for $4.50, such as raspberry sorbet with Chambord liquour, or a light French apple torte with custard and créme Anglaise. One can imagine a fine French meal ending with such finesse.
Mei Long's masterful blending of creative Chinese cuisine with "European" touches like wine-pairing and individual platings recalls the historical interplay between European and Asian culinary cultures.
Indeed, the French adapted many famous dishes from China, such as duck a l'orange. Chinese high cuisine is centuries older, so it shouldn't surprise us when a classically trained Chinese chef presents great food in a context that we associate with high-end European dining.
Although seemingly expensive compared to most Chinese restaurants, Mei Long costs less than most of its haute-cuisine European cousins. Only Mei Long's humble location appears contradictory to its high culinary achievement.
Mei Long excels at presenting distinguished Chinese cuisine with balance and sophistication, a delight to the eye and palate.
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Take-out, full bar, street and rear parking.