A Guided Tour of a Complicated Menu

Because I write about food, I get invited to eat stuff, and sometimes if I’m really lucky, I get invited as a guest of the house, to eat a whole bunch of stuff all at once, presented by a restaurant as a sort of “best of” their menu. It’s usually pretty awesome, and recently I had some really good luck, because Mai (AKA Mary) Medvedev from Red Ginger Dim Sum & Tapas and her GM, Steve heard that I had awarded their Szechuan wontons my Eat of the Week [ LINK ] and invited me to come in and try more of their extensive, authentic Chinese Dim Sum menu. Wow. I am so grateful for that! I had tried Red Ginger more than a couple of times, and had not quite found the dishes that I liked, until those wontons, and until this very special guided tasting menu! Sitting down with Mary and Steve was like going to Dim Sum School with two of the best teachers ever! I was in good hands, good company, and I ate a ton of great food.

First let me set it up by saying that Mary and Steve greeted me warmly, and then very deftly placed me a seat that had THE best natural lighting in the whole place. Smart. You can see from the photos that I had no problem with dark, grainy pictures. Every dish looked beautiful when it came out of the kitchen — even the chicken feet… which I’ll get to  — and I got some great shots with my iPhone camera. You can see more photos on my own blog [ LINK ], as well as on Instagram [ LINK ], and Facebook [ LINK ].

I thought I might be dining alone, but Mary and Steve joined me, as in: They both sat directly across from me, and watched me eat. Ha ha! Declining to eat with me, they simply observed & advised as I tackled several full-sized dishes as best I could. When I pushed one plate aside after a few… dozen… bites, Mary would summon the server to bring me the next one. She even instructed them to pack up the left-overs for me to take home — except for the chicken feet… which I’ll get to in a minute — so that by the end of the meal, I had two GIANT to-go bags. Whoa. Talk about hospitality. I could not say no. That would be rude. And really stupid.

Anyhoo…. you might think it could be a tiny bit nerve-wracking to sit across from two people from China while they watched me struggle to use chop-sticks on food I’d never seen or heard of before, but no, Mary and Steve are really nice people, and consummate food industry professionals who made me feel as comfortable as can be the entire time. They gave me gentle instructions on how to eat everything from soup dumplings (bite the corner, suck out the soup, then eat the dumpling), to shrimp-heads (eat them like popcorn if you want to, or not if you don’t!), to chicken feet… okay okay, the chicken feet! Here’s a picture…

Those are chicken feet. photo by Stu Helm
I had never ate a chicken foot before. I had been warned ahead of time, by an insider, that chicken feet might be coming my way during this meal, and the advice I got from that person was to just tough it out. Thaaat’s kinda sorta not exactly what ya wanna hear when it comes to eating “weird” foods for the first time. You wanna hear things like, “It was surprisingly good!” Or “Now, I love it!” Or at the very least, “It didn’t taste like anything to me,” but never “Tough it out.” Here’s some photos of me toughing it out…

You can see these pictures bigger on my blog. photos by Mai Medvedev
Yeah. No. Not to my liking. Steve and Mai got a big kick out me eating exactly one chicken foot, but they let me off the hook by assuring me that the rest of the feet in the dish would not go to waste, they would finish them off themselves! Of course, in parts of China this dish is not the least bit “weird,” but is a very common snack / street food. Stephen told me they are more popular with women than with men by about an 80 / 20% split, and Mary laughed when she confirmed that she could eat a “bucket” of them. I could BARELY power my way through one. Gah. They are not crispy ‘n’ crunchy, as I hoped… prayed… they might be, but were instead ooey, gooey, sweet, and… gelatinous. Imagine a chicken-foot-shaped jelly-sack with tiny bones inside. They are cooked low and slow over a long period of time until aaalll that chicken-foot skin gets as loose as a goose… if I may mix my foul metaphors. At first I went in to grab one with my fingers, and Steve instructed me to “use a fork.” Then I took the slightest of nibbles, and Mai smiled, “just put the whole thing in your mouth and chew.”  Holy. Moly. No effing way. I tried. I did my best, Yo, and I ate most of one dang foot… which will haunt my nightmares forever. I’m glad I can say that I did it, and I am sure that some of you more adventurous eaters out there will want to take on the challenge of eating these things, and I say go for it. You have to ask for them, as they are not on the menu.

Something else that was not on the menu when Red Ginger forst opened, but has been recently added, is a very amazing and delicious pork belly gua bao bun. Here’s a picture…

Set your mouths on “water.” photo b Stu Helm

Mary told me that she had originally left the gua bao bun off the menu because she wasn’t sure how Americans would feel about eating pork belly! Now it was my turn to smile. There are times when pork belly seems to be on every menu in town, in one form or another. Everything from mac n cheese, to grits, to a hamburger might include some pork belly around these parts. “I’m here to tell ya, Mai, that Americans love pork belly,” I said with confidence. When Mary instructed me to “pick it up like a sandwich,” I responded with an enthusiastic, “This one I’m familiar with!” And then I pushed my face into the sweet, soft, awesomeness of the steamed bao bun, and the perfectly cooked pork belly, which all but melted in my mouth. Holy…

I tried not swear out loud during this meal, but…

This gua bao bun was FRIGGIN’ AWESOME! Gah! Not too long ago, I was lamenting that I didn’t know where to get any bao buns in Asheville, now I know of four places to get them, including Red Ginger, right in my own stomping grounds of downtown. They are completely nailing it with their delicious, picture perfect, 100% genuine, authentic Chinese gua bao pork belly buns. These little sandwiches are as comforting to me as any dish of Southern food could ever be. If you like pork belly — and I know you do, Asheville! — you’re going to love these gua bao pork belly buns. The bun is very palatable and the pork is melt-in-your-mouthy. The sauce is thick and sweet, but the fresh cilantro and cucumber cut through it very nicely. Here’s another picture…

Pork belly, cucumber, cilantro, sauce, awesome. photo by Stu Helm

Are you effing kidding me? Look at that thing!!! Okay, moving on from the buns… there were many other amazing dishes placed on the table for me to try. Mary spared nothing, and assured me that she wanted me to taste as many of their menu items as possible. One of my favorite offerings were the amazing salt and pepper shrimp with jalapeños, which were crispy, and spicy, and savory, and satisfying on every single level. Steve explained to me that after they are deep fried, the shrimp are tossed in the wok for a bit, to bring the flavor of the sea back out of them, because it gets sealed-in by the deep-frying process. Huh. Brilliant. And seemingly true. The briny flavor of the sea came through the spices and coating of batter beautifully, and the shrimp tasted like shrimp, not just fried stuff. The shrimp are shelled, but the tails are left on, so that they are crispy and edible! The heads of the shrimps are removed, and cooked separately, then placed on the side. Not to everyone’s liking, the heads have the sweet, mushy, non-meaty parts of the shrimp inside of a very crispy, very crunch-able shell. I ate them all. They were awesome! Here’s a nice picture of this very nice dish…

The plate, table and menu are the only non-edible things in this picture. photo by Stu Helm

One of the cutest and tastiest dishes to hit the table during this meal was the sticky rice with chicken, pork, and shitake mushrooms, which came in an adorable little bundle made of a giant lotus leaf! If you’ve never had sticky rice, please consider trying it, because it is one of life’s great pleasures in my opinion. It’s rice that has been basically caramelized until it’s slightly brown and crispy in parts, and sticky as can be in other parts. Warm, starchy, easy to eat. The chicken and pork filling is mild, and tender. Again, to me, this dish is comforting in the same way that Southern cooking can be comforting. Plus, it’s fun to unwrap the lotus leaf bundles!

Lotus leaf bundles in a basket!

Open it up!

Sticky rice packet with chicken inside!

I was already getting really full, but the food kep’-a-comin’… and I was not complaining! The next dish to arrive was wild, weird, and unexpectedly awesome! On the menu it’s called “beef meets shrimp,” and consists of a shrimp tempora roll, wrapped with rib eye steak, and topped with spicy mayo, and crispy fried garlic flakes. Sounds fuckin’ wierd, right? Like, I’m not sure I would ever order that off the menu on my own, so I am really happy that Mary ordered it for me! Here’s a lovely picture of this strange but beautiful dish…

A delicious chimaera of food. photo by Stu Helm
I highly recommend that you order this strange dish. The shrimp was tender, sweet, and crispy on the outside. The beef was also very tender, and I did not have to fight or wrestle with it in order to get to the shrimp roll. The flavors of the spicy mayo, garlic crisps, and other touches and sauces made this dish a very pleasurable experience, and I even had a “close your eyes and go to heaven” moment right in front of Steve and Mary. When I thought about it later, as weird as this dish sounded to me at first, it’s basically a version of the “surf and turf‘ (beef and lobster) plates that I grew up eating in New England, so once more, I found this food to hit a lot comfort food notes with me.

Another dish I may never have ordered for myself, but I am so glad Mary introduced me to, is their smoked duck breast, which comes with sweet potato, bell pepper, onion, and ham, and has an orange miso sauce poured over it. It just doesn’t sound like something that I would particularly want to eat, but hell yes, I would totally eat this dish again and again. The duck meat was cooked very  nicely, and was tender and moist. The duck fat — of which there was of course a substantial amount — was also cooked perfectly and melted in my mouth like butter. The diced ham and sweet potatoes were perhaps the most unexpected elements on any dish of the whole meal, but mixed in very well with the smokiness of the duck and the mild tang of the orange miso. I think duck fans, smoked meat fan, ham fans, and food fans in general will find this dish to be a surprising treat! I sure did.

Unexpected duck. photo by Stu Helm
Not so surprising, the Szechuan wontons made an appearance and were every bit as amazing as they were when they won my Eat of the Week award. Being totally pro, and very considerate, Mary indicated to me that she wanted to offer me at least one dish during this meal that she already knew I loved. I thought that was very sweet. She didn’t need to feed me any of this food, let alone the one dish she knew I’d already tried, but she wanted to assure me, and herself that I would truly enjoy one dish at the very least. Well, I enjoyed most of the meal — chicken foot aside — but the wontons were indeed a welcome sight. They are the bomb.

Hot as hell, spice-wise, warm and comforting, temperature-wise, and filled with ground pork, and shrimp, these little balls of dim sum-yumminess, are served with fresh cilantro and chopped green onion. Mary explained that these wontons are larger than traditional wontons in China, because each one contains a whole shrimp. YUM! I love that! Now, these I could eat a bucket of.

The wontons the won my heart. photo by Stu Helm
Unfortunately I did not get a good picture of the “pork dumplings Shanghai style” (aka soup dumplings), or the Lo Song beef soup that were also part of this enormous meal. The dumplings were actually not much to look at, but tasted awesome, and are a very traditional type of “must get” food when you go to any dim sum restaurant. I recommend them highly,a nd as Steve said, bite the corner, suck out the soup, then eat the dumpling. The Lo Song soup was not my favorite dish of the meal, only because I’m not the biggest fan of beef soup. If you are a fan, you’ll love it! There’s tons of it for one thing, and the beef is plentiful, tender and full of flavor. Mai was proud to tell that the beef is from Hickey Nut Gap Farm, which lead to a discussion about how all of the food and ingredients at Red Ginger is is sourced as locally, sustain-ably, and organically as possible, just like any other true Asheville eatery! Mai told me that growing up in China, she remembers washing the dirt off the vegetables from her family garden before cooking them, and still loves the taste of fresh, organic produce.

As the meal was coming to close, Mary seemed to get more excited than ever about the final item: Sea bass. I could see why she was so proud to offer me this dish as soon as it arrived. It was gorgeous to look at, presented very artistically on a small plate, atop a banana leaf, with a single pickled ginger shoot. “Don’t eat the red part,” Steve cautioned regarding the ginger root, “Take a bite of it, then a forkful of the fish.” I did just that, and… holy… Jimminy… fahk…  this piece of fish was frickn’ exquisite. Slow cooked, and then grilled, it seemed to be marinated in some kind of subtle, sweet glaze, that was just a wee bit sticky, and worked very well with the moist, flaky, also slightly sweet and very subtle meat of the fish. Good lord. I don;t have a lot of experience with sea bass, but in my opinion this piece of fish was very expertly prepared, and served in the perfect way. I was able to enjoy it on its own, no heavy sauce, or crunchy breading, or starchy rice. Just a bite of that really great little pickled ginger shoot, as Steve suggested, and then pure sea bass. I loved it.

Sea Bass with picked ginger shoot. photo by Stu Helm
I’m not a big fish-skin eater in general, but after that chicken foot, I was game for anything, and figured a little fish skin would be no problem, so I asked Mai if I could eat the skin, and she said yes, so I did, and it was awesome. This dish was truly something special, and that is no joke. Apparently it is not always on the menu, so ask your server if it’s available.

Here’s a better angle to get a look at the skin. photo by Stu Helm
Because I had a pair of excellent teachers to see me through this meal, I feel comfortable going back into Red Ginger and ordering some really tasty dishes for myself, as well as impressing friends and visitors alike with my own skill and knowledge in ordering from the large, and until now largely unfamiliar, menu. Now that I know what to order, and I hope this write-up can serve as a guide of sorts for you, so that you will also know at least a few dishes to order the next time you go in to Red Ginger

That is really the whole point of offering a person like a me a special tasting table like this, right? So that I can try a bunch of stuff, and then recommend specific dishes to the eaters & readers, who can then enter Red Ginger with some confidence and a plan, try these dishes for themselves, along with other things, then go on to recommend certain favorites to friends, and word can spread from there. That’s the name of the game, Yo, and one of my favorite aspects about being a food writer. Helping to spread the word about good food is a nice feeling.

In addition to getting to know the menu, I also got to know Mary and Steve a little bit, and that was the true pleasure of the meal. Mary is a kindhearted, warm, upbeat, generous person, who comes from very humble beginnings, has worked hard, found success in several areas of life and business, and is a strong, savvy women, with a streak of hospitality a mile wide. Steve is the picture of a proper GM. Fifty percent affable friend, fifty percent seasoned pro. He was relaxed and talkative, and practiced at the art of making people comfortable, without seeming cynical about it. I liked them both very much, and as I’ve mentioned in my writing several times, liking the people who are making my food, makes me more likely to like that food more. True story.

~ END ~

From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O'SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM
From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O’SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM
Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.

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One Comment

  1. stu, please list the 4 places to get bao buns in asheville… enjoy,mk

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