Year of the Rooster
[from January 2005 issue]

Kung Hei Fat Choy, my Cantonese friends might say. And surely, after the civilities, they’d invite me to share a meal. As far as symbols go during the Chinese New Year, food and its sharing ranks up with lion dances, paper gods and firecrackers as important components of the festivities. Indeed, as one source notes, the Chinese consume more food during the 15-days’ celebrations than at any other time of year. And many foods have a significance, from dried bean curd (wealth and happiness) to uncut long noodles (longevity).

So in that spirit, I joined a couple of friends for lunch recently at Chinatown’s (or, MCItown’s) much-touted Eat First restaurant. “This is my favorite restaurant in town,” said one of the ladies, who admitted that her second favorite restaurant had burned down. Favorites, of course, are always subjective, and Eat First would not rank among mine.

Since she is Chinese and was very familiar with the menu, it seemed sensible to let her lead the ordering. After sifting through this and that possibilities--did we want a whole fish, what about something with chicken?; please keep out the chilies; No, don’t order just one soup; how can we share?—-we ended up with a relatively pleasing menu, except no cook exists who can make beef tendon even remotely appealing to me.

And beef tendon was a major component of the beef, turnip and tendon hot pot, an ideal chill-breaker and centerpiece for a drizzly day--at least in theory. Steaming, the liquid continues to cook the beef, so that it is tender enough to fall into shreds. Even the tendon, said the smiling Chinese lady, who loves the stuff, had been cooked enough to make it less crunchy. Yuck.

Fortunately, she accompanied this main dish with two other more tempting courses: the ma po bean curd (no chilies, please) and shrimp-stuffed eggplant afloat in a rather tasteless sauce. Maybe too much Thai food has blunted the palate of this reviewer, but everything in that dish seemed monochromatic.

Yet we could have launched into more appealing dishes if we had, as one of us had suggested, perhaps swapped the tendons hot pot for the steamed fish. It’s a Cantonese restaurant, so seafood would be a typical offering. A missed opportunity, as were any of the duck or chicken dishes we didn’t order. It may be that our mistake was not ordering more from the “house specials” selections (the eggplant stuffed with shrimp is a house special), or paying close attention to the specials advertised in big signs on the wall.

But in the spirit of the almost-holiday--after all, it was nearly Chinese New Year when we visited Eat First—-I ordered cold sesame noodles uncut and twined around in large spools and sauced with a thickish paste, good enough to outpace the tendons any day. And then I slipped into total Western mode for a dish of rather ho-hum orange beef; the beef pieces were too large and the sauce too sweet and without the needed chili bite.

Winner of assorted rave reviews and much admired by many, Eat First obviously has a dedicated following, and in all fairness, it deserves a second or third try. Maybe it would be the special place to head during the new year festivities, when with some forethought our table might tackle something without tendons. Like sliced chicken with ginger and scallions in a clay pot. Or steamed fish.

Eat First Restaurant, 609 H St., NW; tel., 289-1703. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11am-2am; Fri. & Sat., 11am-3am. Entrée prices: $5.95 to seasonal. Major credit cards accepted.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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