In times of stress, we eat. And most of us have "comfort" foods: chocolate-chip cookies, potato chips, a big steak. Sociologists and nutritionists concur that, although we may not always be better off healthwise afterward, consumption of these items improves our moods. We were programmed, they say, to desire certain tastes from childhood in order to alleviate emotional or physical traumas.
Pregnant women suffering from morning sickness, for instance, tend to crave foods they ate when they were very young. In my case, I couldn't get enough Spaghettios. True to form, though, I didn't -- and don't -- have one particular comfort food. I have a comfort cuisine. During trying times I need Chinese fare. My mother's to blame: When I was a kid, she used to take me out for stir-fried beef with broccoli and mu shu pork whenever I came down with strep throat (which was frequently). The pattern was set.
Now that I'm something of a grownup, I have to take care of myself. So when my air conditioning broke a couple of weeks ago, I wanted egg rolls. When the guy who came to fix the air conditioning climbed on top of the townhouse and accidentally kicked off a rusted piece of metal connecting the ventilator to the roof, I longed for pan-fried dumplings. And when it started to rain and the entire house flooded, thanks to the hole left by the repairman, I sought to drown my sorrows in a family-size serving of hot 'n' sour soup. In fact, I was ready for a seven-course Chinese meal after the insurance adjuster, who simply shook his head and handed over a big check, left me alone with all that mildew.
Problem is, most Chinese restaurants in South Florida are more mediocre than they are deliciously comforting. But an average meal wouldn't do. So it was with some trepidation that I threw caution to the water-stained walls and tried the 18-month-old eatery East Emerald on Sheridan Street in Hollywood.
I needn't have worried. East Emerald, which is owned by the management of the 20-year-old China Doll in Tamarac, does have a fairly typical Chinese menu. The offerings are mostly multiregional standards, ranging from Hunan beef to Cantonese lemon chicken to Mandarin mu shu pork. But the differences between East Emerald and its ho-hum competition are evident from the start. Despite the restaurant's strip-mall location, the decor is elegant. Silvery gray walls are complemented by a mural of swirling koi (large Japanese carp). Real koi swim in a wall-length aquarium. The glass is etched, the ceilings are high, and tassels, hanging lanterns, and dragons are nowhere to be found. It's a pleasant place to spend a lot of time, which, as work on my house commences, I'll probably end up doing.
The second big difference is the fare. East Emerald doesn't just serve Chinese food. It woks up "the finest and latest in Chinese cuisine," according to the menu. I concur with the first boast. An excellent main course of eggplant shrimp offered crisp-edged, baby Japanese eggplant the color of lilacs and butterflied jumbo shrimp sauteed in a savory brown sauce. The chicken and string beans entree was also terrific. The white-meat chicken was practically melting under its caramel-hued glaze, and the string beans had been stir-fried so quickly they had a delicate crackle to them.
Chef Kevin Ong favors two-ingredient combinations; he'll do any meat or seafood with a choice of eggplant, string beans, zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli, or asparagus. Customers looking for a variety of vitamins and minerals would probably prefer the braised duck, a blackboard special that was served in a clay pot with baby corn, broccoli, water chestnuts, carrots, and snow peas. The meaty duck sections had been battered and deep-fried, then doused with a tempting brown sauce.
Peking duck is a two-part presentation but also provides the daily requirements. The first course, the mahogany skin of the bird wrapped in Mandarin pancakes with plum sauce and flowered scallions, was garnished with slices of ripe tomato. The second course consisted of shredded duck meat sauteed with julienne carrots, cabbage, and celery in a rich hoisin sauce. This dish was well worth the $26 price tag, a relative bargain for Peking duck.
As for the second claim -- the "latest in Chinese cuisine" -- Ong does prepare at least one innovative entree. Emerald salmon was a pan-fried fillet topped with ground pork, chopped red and green bell peppers, and scallions in black-bean sauce. The strong flavors worked well with the salmon, which rested on a bed of spaghetti. Discerning patrons might take issue with the spaghetti, especially since the same pasta is used in an appetizer of cold noodles covered with sesame-peanut sauce. The noodles were piquantly flavored but a bit too springy -- more like Italian pasta -- for my taste. (Of course, rumor has it that explorer Marco Polo did bring spaghetti back to Italy from China, so historians could make an argument here for East Emerald's version.)
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Ong's true specialty is creating sauces. In one outstanding appetizer, slices of pork glistened with hoisin-barbecue sauce, with just a hint of ginger in it. And the pungent sesame beef entree, an all-meat feast topped with sesame seeds, was exploding with flavor, though the beef was slightly tough.
So perhaps Ong should take a look at his pork fried rice, which was bland and relatively porkless, and extend his talents by writing a more creative menu. Pot-stickers, a starter of six plump, fragrant pork dumplings, and velvety chicken-corn soup rife with cooked egg whites, were both tasty. But they were hardly "the latest." Nor was the choice of desserts: pineapple chunks, pistachio ice cream, or a slightly rancid almond cookie.
Take note: As my house is torn apart and rebuilt from the inside out, I'm going to need lots of comfort in the upcoming weeks. So I probably won't be able to rely just on East Emerald, good as it is. Shepherd's pie and fish 'n' chips also have a way of calming me down....
East Emerald. 5301 Sheridan St., Hollywood, 954-894-1390. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday from 11:45 a.m. till 10 p.m; Saturday and Sunday from 3:30 to 10 p.m.