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Safe Harbor 

At Harbor Village, the Cantonese nights are more exciting than the dim sum days

Wednesday, Mar 24 2004
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My friend Tom, who ought to know, told me that there are now 75 film festivals in the Bay Area. I was surprised, but I shouldn't have been, since I was still bemoaning missing some movies I'd wanted to see in last month's San Francisco Independent Film Festival while contemplating the schedule for this month's Tiburon International Film Festival. The appeal of seeing a movie in a festival context is manifold: Sometimes the picture's creators appear and are available for question-and-answer sessions after the screening; the audiences are attentive, knowing, and excited about being there, adding something ineffable to the occasion; and a well-programmed festival, in addition to being fun, can enlarge your view of the world.

Just such a festival is San Francisco's venerable Asian-American, whose 22nd annual edition unspooled over the last few weeks. It was hard to choose from among the 90 screenings of 122 films and videos, ranging from shorts of a few minutes made on DV8 for a few hundred dollars to a nearly three-hour Bollywood romantic-musical extravaganza set in New York.

Well, to be honest, that was an easy choice, as I'd already seen the Bollywood picture, Kal Ho Naa Ho, thanks to the intrepid Tom, months ago in an Indian multiplex in Fremont. Still, it was hard to leave the Castro on Sunday and walk past the crowds lined up around the block for it, knowing what fun being part of that audience would be. But I was leaving on a high after an extraordinary screening of the restored silent Piccadilly, starring the exquisite Anna May Wong, her profile like an art deco brooch pinned to the movie, for which festival organizers had commissioned a jazzy new score by the local Asian-American composer Jon Jang, who performed it live. It was the last of eight movies I'd seen over the weekend (more, really, because there were a dozen well-chosen shorts in the program called "Miss Match," including a couple of the best pictures I saw, the nine-minute Green Stalks and the 15-minute Full Moon, both directed by young women and shot on video), a dizzying array including the first feature made in Bhutan, a charming blend of romantic comedy, fantasy, and road movie called Travellers and Magicians; a Chinese martial-arts masterpiece from 1965, Come Drink With Me; and a documentary from Werner Herzog about a Buddhist ritual, filmed in India and Austria.

It should come as no surprise that many of the other pictures I chose to see had food themes. I loved the touching documentary Dream Cuisine, about the husband-and-wife owners of a traditional Chinese restaurant in Japan ("No sugar, no lard, no MSG"!). I picked another couple of movies based almost on their names alone: Take Out and Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile. And I induced my friends Robert and Gail to join me in watching them by promising a Chinese meal to complete the evening. It should also come as no surprise that watching Asian movies induces Asian food hunger. (After Piccadilly, in which Wong rises from scullery maid in the kitchen of a fashionable London nightclub to its star dancing attraction, I drove to Chinatown in search of just such a bowl of noodles as her friends had been shoveling into their mouths when she took her nightclub-owner lover on a slumming tour of Limehouse. I chose the restaurant because it was open and directly in front of the only parking space I found. The noodles were nothing special, but exactly what I wanted.)

Our hungers were inflamed, surprisingly, more by the run-of-the-mill fare being cooked all through Take Out -- a thriller about an illegal Chinese immigrant trying to get enough money to pay off a loan shark while working as an ill-paid delivery boy for a modest takeout place -- than by the spots featured in Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile, a documentary about Chinese eateries in Haifa, Cape Town, and Istanbul, which turned out to be more of a sociological study than a gastronomic one. (One dispiriting reference: The philosophical owner of Yan Yan in Israel feeds his customers "almond chicken, green pepper beef, sweet-and-sour pork, spring rolls, and salad.") But Take Out's house special lo mein, broccoli and bean curd, pork-fried rice with chicken -- "Make sure you don't put no vegetables!" -- and wonton soup looked amazingly delicious being wokked up before our eyes.

We set off for Harbor Village without especially great expectations because it's better known as a dim sum house. The setting, in the deathly-quiet-at-night Embarcadero Center, is plush but kind of anonymous -- in a glitzy, mirrored, floral-carpet, white-linen, dark-wood furniture way. I was slightly stunned by the prices on the multipaged menu heavily bound in leatherette: double digits on everything, and some of them mid to high two figures (braised shark fin soup, $65; braised whole abalone, $45; stir-fried fillet of Atlantic fluke, $50; Nobleman's chicken, $80). And these dishes were listed right at the top of their sections, instead of lurking at the bottom. (I could understand the high prices on the luxury items, such as lobster at $32 a pound, but why is rock cod $36 a pound?) Robert pointed out the useful and reassuring list of fresh vegetables available, including three kinds of bok choy, as we enjoyed a refreshing house-made crisp vegetable pickle bathed in sesame oil (which turned out to be made of mustard greens). Once I got past my sticker shock, I saw that there were lots of intriguing dishes priced around $16 or $18, and we'd assembled an interesting-sounding array -- including pan-fried short ribs of beef with aromatic garlic (is there any other kind? Oh yes, elephant garlic), tender pea shoots with fresh shiitake mushrooms, and camphor-wood-and-tea-smoked half duck -- when Robert picked up a little bound menu that we'd all thought was for drinks, and we fell down the rabbit hole.

It was the specials menu, and there were at least 20 more possibilities (in addition to the 100-plus we'd already considered), and the new dishes sounded dreamily poetic, unusual, and exciting: clay pot of fish mousse, dried shrimp, and daikon radishes; golden sun-dried oysters with a spicy herb salt; pan-fried patties of chicken, pork, and chopped lotus root. We started rethinking our order just as the waiter arrived at our table, so we hastily combined a couple of ideas from the big menu (clay pot of Shanghai-style meatballs with Napa cabbage, spicy ma-po tofu) with some from the list of specials (soft scrambled eggs with scallops and pea shoots, sizzling Vietnamese spicy prawns).

The shrimp arrived first, and my interest sagged a little: I thought they'd be in the shell, and I expected more pungent seasoning than the onion-heavy stir-fry the big, firm, peeled shrimp were perched on, but they tasted impeccably fresh and deliciously right. That was a pleasant surprise, but the eggs were an even better one. "This looks like something I would cook for myself," I said when they arrived, and they did taste like home cooking, but divinely so: creamy eggs lightly binding sweet slices of scallop and just-wilted greens. "We're having a very homey meal in this hotel-lobby setting," Robert pointed out as we dug into the huge but light meatballs in a pearly, translucent brown sauce, set on fronds of the still slightly crunchy cabbage: a satisfying dish. The tofu was silky and slippery in its heady sauce full of chunks of minced beef. This was the best Cantonese-style cooking I'd had in the Bay Area. Hell, it was one of the best Chinese meals I'd ever had. We looked at the menu again with new respect. Even the simplest dish we'd ordered was knowingly cooked and sophisticated in execution. I felt I could order anything here, with confidence. Even the desserts were special: a warm cream of walnut soup that was better than any I'd had in China, and a light molded mango pudding enhanced with diced crisp melon.

A day later I returned to Harbor Village for a dim sum lunch with my mother, my two sisters, and their respective sons, ages 2 1/2 and 16. We'd scarcely been seated when the parade of dumplings, buns, and small plates began, and we made the dim sum mistake of saying yes to almost everything and getting full before some of the more interesting things arrived. (Still, I have no complaints about the quality of anything we ate, and the shrimp-and-pea-shoot dumplings and scallop dumplings were especially fine, as were the candylike barbecued pork and meaty sliced duck.) It took us almost to the end of the meal to find out that the fried turnip cakes we'd been asking for had to be specially ordered, but when they arrived they turned out to be superb, with bits of meat, a lovely texture (not gummy as they so often are), and a faint smoky flavor. They were worth asking for, and worth waiting for. It was also only at the end of the meal, when I requested a copy of the dinner menu to show my sisters, that I was told you can order from that menu at lunch, too. I nearly cried, thinking of the pan-fried pork loin with lemongrass and poached clams with basil and lime juice that got away.

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Meredith Brody

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