I've long believed the best things in life — love, health, freedom, a purpose — are easily recognizable to those who enjoy them. And, since we're making a list, let's throw in friendship. And wisdom. And inner peace. And, of course, orgasms. The part where it all gets tricky is that love doesn't always beget wisdom and inner peace, and freedom can seem a wasteland without the guiding light of a purpose, and if a person had five, 10, even a hundred orgasms a day, if life became one continuous, roiling orgasm, that person wouldn't necessarily be any healthier. Or perhaps she would, but how she'd find time to keep in touch with her friends I don't know.
Thus, on a broader level, we seek balance. We appreciate the symmetry of natural ecosystems, in which the four seasons, night and day, earth, air, water, and the sun all play their parts in the delicate cycle of life. In football, we talk about a well-balanced attack (the run, the pass); in debate, we need con as much as pro; we work hard, but also play hard; opposites attract; and while we can't always explain balance, we know it when we see it, and, conversely, when we do not.
This takes us to Berkeley's Xanadu, where the ancient Chinese principle of balancing yin (feminine, dark, cooling, vegetable) with yang (masculine, bright, warming, animal) meets dishes from across the East under the banner of “RestorAsian” cuisine. Conceived by much-lauded restaurateur George Chen (Betelnut, Shanghai 1930), Xanadu hopes to pursue an ambitious course: to embark on a culinary tour of the once-vast Mongol empire while exploring “the restorative yin and yang properties of food and the effects of balancing the soul or 'Qi.'”
To my friend Barrie and me, this sounded like a marvelous idea, since, for one thing, Betelnut is one of our favorite restaurants. Likewise, we were intrigued by the possibility of balancing our souls over dinner and drinks and by a cuisine that, by striving for a harmony of opposites, produces meals that transcend the mere sum of their ingredients.
At its best, Xanadu achieves this, but not often enough. Many dishes felt lifeless and poorly executed, and the RestorAsian concept, which takes the form of short explanations of the healthful properties of some items (the edible shells of the salt-and-pepper prawns, a yang dish, are said to be high in calcium), proved a distraction more than anything, and left us searching for a cohesiveness we found all too rarely.
But then, I majored in English in college, not Eastern philosophy, and had to wonder if I was the one who didn't get it. Then again: According to the menu, Xanadu took its name from “the poem Xanadu,” written by Samuel Coleridge in 1797 after he woke from an anodyne (opium) induced dream. After searching through my old textbooks, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and the San Francisco Public Library, I must say I lost some faith in things RestorAsian when I found no Coleridge poem titled “Xanadu.” Perhaps the menu refers to the anodyne-induced poem “Kubla Khan” (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree”), also written by Coleridge in 1797.
And then, if I really wanted to be a snot, I'd mention that one of the potted plants near the entrance looked sickly, that our chopsticks kept falling off the small black stones they were supposed to rest on, that the Mongols tended to be a cruel, unwashed, murderous bunch, and that Coleridge, who suffered tremendously from his opium addiction, envisioned Xanadu as follows: “A savage place! as holy and enchanted/ As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”
Not exactly images of balance.
Granted, these are my beefs, the result of my own imbalance (hey, I'm working on it) meeting the unfortunate, seemingly avoidable series of disappointments that made us pine for everything Xanadu could achieve. The space itself promised a lovely evening — a pleasant, jazz-infused dining room juxtaposes rich fabrics against dark wood paneling and white tablecloths, centered around a luminous silk chandelier — while our cocktails made us fear we were in for a long night. Of the five we tried, only the Yin-Yang (“a balanced cocktail” of rum, coconut, pineapple juice, and blue curaçao, $5.25, also known as a Blue Hawaiian) stirred the palate. Beyond that, the mango Cosmopolitan (Stolichnaya orange vodka, cointreau, and mango purée, $5.50) was soupy and bitter, the Mai Tai ($5.75) too sweet, the Red Sun (rum, grenadine, and orange and pineapple juices, $5.50) too strong, and the Khan-cubine (amaretto, Southern Comfort, and pineapple and cranberry juices, $5.25) tasted like cough syrup.
The food itself was somewhat better: A few dishes seduced, only one failed entirely, and many produced a tepid, “Eh.” This was the case when it came to the roasted chicken with sliced cucumbers, two ginger sauces, and lettuce wrap ($10.75). Though the chicken bristled with crispness and the sauces (chile and scallion) complemented each other nicely, the dish as a whole seemed dry and awkward, as if the disparate parts didn't belong together. Likewise, the Balinese-style seviche ($8.50) — bland, diced rockfish, fried shallots, and roasted peanuts, served over a bed of pickled cucumbers — never really came to life.
But then we tried the chilled soba salad ($7.95), in which hearty wheat noodles, crunchy, sesame-rich wakame, thin-sliced ginger, ahi tartare, and a tart citrus ponzu sauce sang with unmistakable harmony. Yes, we were feeling it — the complex but seemingly effortless interaction of ingredients that, when you think about it, marks all successful forays into the kitchen the world over. Likewise, our first entree, mamak mee goreng ($9), seemed a universe in itself. Silky-rich tofu met crisp bean sprouts and zesty scallions, shrimp played off bits of potato, and tender, perfectly textured chow mein noodles fulfilled their destiny in a languid, smoky-sweet sauce.
Unfortunately, this too had a counterpart — the “balanced” galanga beef (warming) with shredded yams (neutral) and watercress (cooling, $16.95). The beef, billed as spicy, tasted pretty much like beef, the yams proved as flavorful as strips of cardboard, and the watercress added nothing to a mix that seemed forced at best. A side of hot, crisp, onion-rich naan bread with spicy raita ($3.75) treated us better, as did the steamed halibut ($19.95) — tender, succulent fish, meaty shiitakes and portobellos, tofu, scallions, and ginger in a mildly spicy oyster sauce. Or at least the halibut treated me better, since Barrie fell victim to a rogue hot pepper that annihilated any kind feelings she had for an otherwise enjoyable entree.
Then, a man (not our server) began clearing our table, which would have been fine if we hadn't had two more dishes on the way. After we explained this, he provided us with fresh chopsticks and plates, which sat unused during the 15 minutes we waited for a generous, but uninspired, side of wok-tossed green beans with roasted garlic ($6.50). In my opinion, such appetite-killing gaps shouldn't occur in half-full restaurants; what should occur, in all restaurants, everywhere, forever, can be summed up as follows — pan-roasted duck breast with cranberry-mustard sauce ($19.50).
Despite Xanadu's shortcomings, I'd go back just for this: tender, thin-sliced duck breast, still pink on the inside, a rind of fatty skin clinging to each savory morsel; crisp, grilled asparagus; exuberant, spicy-sweet mango relish; and the poignant, slightly apple-tasting rhapsody that springs from the fusion of cranberry and mustard. On every level, the duck succeeded brilliantly — texture, taste, sight, smell, not to mention the buoyant, glowing sensation that cascades through the universe when things achieve their potential — which made dessert, an overly sweet bananas foster ($5.75), all the more disappointing. As we'd had at too many other moments, we were left with the feeling Xanadu could do better.