Poetic Food

Ingredients: Asian restaurants and April, spring flowers and sprouts

In April my fancy lightly turns to thoughts of poetry. This is partly because all around me the Earth is bursting into bloom, brilliant orange poppies nodding in the yard, sweet jasmine perfuming the air, and I stroll through the farmers' markets marveling at the new delights -- asparagus, artichokes, morels, strawberries, rhubarb, fiddlehead ferns, sorrel -- that appear as if by magic, week after week; partly because there's more daylight in which to enjoy the new season (my father considers the day that daylight-saving time begins his personal New Year's Day, and we celebrate it as such); and partly because every day a new poem appears via e-mail, courtesy of Knopf Poetry, in celebration of National Poetry Month, and as a result I spend a few minutes lost in contemplation of verse.

I don't wander around all month in a poetically induced frenzy, but occasionally this state of affairs translates into a heightened awareness, when even the pleasures of the table are more pleasurable. A recent week, accidentally consecrated to Asian eating, seemed especially lyrical, suited to the season and carefully arranged, item by item instead of word by word, by the poets laboring away in the kitchen.

The week began with an impromptu dim sum lunch at Yank Sing, a place I've followed from pillar to post (office -- the latest incarnation of the dumpling palace is in Rincon Center, once the downtown mail center). I invite three colleagues -- the more the merrier, especially when it comes to sharing buns, dumplings, and their brethren -- and hungry guy colleagues at that. We're seated immediately, courtesy of the reservation I called in from the office, and the onslaught of the carts begins. Everything looks good, and we fall prey to the dreaded "saying yes too easily and often" syndrome, covering the table with familiar, if well-executed, dishes like char siu bao (steamed fluffy white buns stuffed with barbecued pork), siu mai (upright columns with a filling of ground pork), fried pot stickers, and tiny, crisp, warm spring rolls. Luckily, we slow down and get some more unusual offerings: fried soft-shell crabs (yes, it's spring) showered with a confetti of colorful minced peppers; crab claws topped with a fried ball of crab-and-shrimp mousse; crunchy fried taro balls; and slightly gluey but irresistible cakes of mashed turnip mixed with seasoned ground pork.

Going to Extremes: The plain setting at 
Kyo-Ya doesn't match its extravagant food.
Anthony Pidgeon
Going to Extremes: The plain setting at Kyo-Ya doesn't match its extravagant food.

Location Info

Map

Yank Sing

101 Spear St., A1
San Francisco, CA 94105

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Embarcadero

Details

Yank Sing

Char siu bao $3.50

Soft-shell crabs $8

Soup dumplings $5.25

Kyo-Ya

Broiled yellowtail collar $15

Ginger squid $13

Ino

Maguro (tuna) sushi $5

Uni sushi market price

Yank Sing, Rincon Center, 101 Spear (at Howard), 957-9300. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Sunday, and major holidays until 4 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: validated in Rincon Center garage. Muni: 1, 41. Noise level: moderate to high.

Kyo-Ya, Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery (at Market), 512-1111. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2, 9, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N. Noise level: moderate.

Ino, Miyako Mall, No. 510, 1620 Webster (at Post), 922-3121. Open Monday through Saturday from 5 to 9:45 p.m. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2, 3, 4, 22, 38. Noise level: low to moderate.

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I mention the poem a day I've been getting, and Nate tells me about another one at the Web site of the Academy of American Poets. We recite, almost in unison, our favorite food poem, famously left on the refrigerator as a note to his wife by William Carlos Williams:

"This Is Just to Say"

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

I'm hoping for dumplings filled with my favorite spring color combination, the preppy but tender pink and green (maybe shrimp with pea shoots, or scallops with chives), but they never show up. (Nor do rice noodle bundles, or sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf.) We're content with something I've never had before at Yank Sing, Shanghai soup dumplings (served with soup spoons for each of us, so you don't pierce the dumpling skin with chopsticks and lose the precious broth), and continue on to gelatinous chicken feet, round mushroom caps stuffed with minced chicken, and Peking duck (one bun each in which to tuck one nice chunk of roast duck complete with crispy lacquered skin, plum sauce, and scallion shreds). We finish with my favorite tiny custard tarts in flaky pastry (don tat) and, as a joke, orange Jell-O in orange peels decorated with cubes of toxic-looking green and yellow Jell-O.

A couple of nights later I join Robert for another ritual Asian meal: We're meeting at Kyo-Ya, with its own separate entrance in the Palace Hotel, for a kaiseki dinner. He's waiting in the tiny, sleek black bar just inside the door, opposite the sleek black host station, nursing a glass of sake poured from an icy little carafe. He points to its description on Kyo-Ya's list of a dozen or so sakes -- Special Junmai Sake, Shira Kaba Gura: "From the Newest Kura that Creates the best Hand Crafted Sake." I taste: It's perfume-y and sweet.

We're shown to our table, and I'm a bit shocked at the plainness of our surroundings. The basic brown tables and chairs would not look out of place in an ordinary family-style Japanese restaurant. We're seated across from a rather noisy table of four. I wonder if this is the ideal setting in which to enjoy the seven-course kaiseki dinner priced at $80?

Not wanting to march along lock step next to Robert, tasting the exact same dishes, I instead order a couple of items from the pricey a la carte menu: broiled yellowtail gills, which we've never seen before on a menu, and "hedgehog" squid.

The kaiseki dinner (which changes monthly) begins with a trio of dishes arranged on a small tray: One contains a plump pink shrimp on a skewer, a bit of seawater eel, jellyfish, and a spongy yellowish cube made of konnyaku, a Japanese tuber; another bears strips of resilient squid flecked with chewy shreds of shark fin coated in plum sauce; and the third, my favorite, mixes crunchy bamboo sticks with fresh wasabi. This course is more about texture than flavor. It's full of surprises (the konnyaku, the sweet plum sauce against the salty fish, the pungent, bright wasabi) and fun.

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