Somewhere between the 1,000-year-old egg and the jaded shiitake at the Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville's exquisite celebration of the Year of the Rabbit, one guest made a bittersweet comment about the local offerings of Asian cuisine. "On Chinese New Year, we want really special Chinese food," said CAAN founder Jen-Jen Lin Friedman, "but we don't have that in Nashville. We have to make it ourselves."
For the second year in a row, CAAN entrusted that culinary task to the Chens, a family of Taiwanese heritage who own and operate Wild Ginger restaurant in Cool Springs. During the rest of the year, Wild Ginger serves a stunning repertoire of pan-Asian-inspired food fused with elements of American taste. But on opening night of China's Spring Festival, the Chens' Franklin eatery transforms into a spectacular house of Chinese tradition to delight all the senses.
Inside the sleek contemporary building, the frantic drumbeats of Lin Friedman's percussion team carom off jagged stone walls and floor-to-ceiling windows, setting the tempo for a larger-than-life lion to weave through tables, batting frilly eyelashes and teasing bashful members of his audience. Little girls in embroidered silk dresses stand primly on their chairs to place hongbao (red envelopes) into the lion's mouth, and the grateful lion wiggles his puppet ears in thanks. (Proceeds from the traditional money-filled envelopes benefit CAAN's efforts to promote Asian arts locally.)
Next comes a parade of traditional Chinese costumes. One model swings her arms gracefully to demonstrate the elongated sleeves of a gossamer blouse, while another teeters perilously beneath a cumbersome headdress and balances on wooden shoes that look like white anvils.
But the real stars of the show are the eight elaborate courses that emerge from the kitchen to be enjoyed family-style at this celebration of community and culture.
The first course, West Lake beef soup, takes its name from a landmark in Eastern China and derives its complex flavor in part from a preserved duck egg (also known as 1,000-year-old egg or millennium egg), which takes about a month to make. The silken broth — made from chicken, ham and fish and brightened by ginger and cilantro — had an opaqueness akin to familiar and comforting egg-drop soup, and was textured with a medley of marinated meat, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo, tofu and sausage. (While this exotic and labor-intensive delicacy is not on Wild Ginger's regular menu, chef Ken Teoh says he can prepare it if guests give him at least a month's notice.)
Next arrived a trio of appetizers, including lettuce wraps with beef stir-fry and deep-fried crêpes stuffed with shrimp paste and lump crab. The pinnacle of this pyramid of finger foods was fried bean curd wraps stuffed with minced chicken. Steamed first and rolled in potato starch before deep-frying in vegetable oil, the crisp bundles yielded to a springy interior laced with a five-spice concoction of cumin, anise, cinnamon, fennel and peppercorn.
In course No. 3, flounder prepared two ways provided both container and contents. A deep-fried fish — complete with bones, head and tail — served as the rustic bed for a delicate mixture of tender flounder and scallops tossed with carrots, baby corn and straw mushrooms in a sauce of white rice wine and stock. While the pairing of fish and scallops was the primary element, the fried carcass with its brittle needles of salty bones was an irresistible edible accessory.
After the buttery textures of the pale fish and scallops, spicy prawns provided a contrasting golden crispness, with corkscrews of plump shrimp fried into twirls, finished with a spicy-sweet chili sauce and garnished with puffed prawn crackers and decorative flowers crafted from sleek Japanese eggplants.
Then came a trio of deep-fried tofu, Japanese eggplant and red bell pepper, each stuffed with a mixture of shrimp paste, pork, ginger and scallion. Finished with a lightly sweet black-bean sauce, the fluffy shrimp-and-pork filling paired with vegetables was light enough to follow so much food, but flavorful enough to hold its own among such a full panel of flavors.
A vegetarian course provided both a visual treat and a respite from the indulgence of meat and seafood. The aptly named jaded shiitake arrived with a bed of earthy mushroom caps surrounded by vibrant bulbs of baby bokchoy, resembling a choker of polished green stones.
The final savory course, which Chef Teoh described as the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti Bolognese, was a pretty plate of Cantonese egg noodles with minced pork, shallots and tofu in hoisin sauce. Tinged with the familiar five-spice blend and encircled by julienne carrots, bean sprouts and cucumber, the colorful presentation deftly straddled the line between comfort food and salad.
For the finale, a second soup bookended the feast. In contrast to the West Lake opener, the final basin contained a cool confection: a chunky chowder of coconut milk thickened with tapioca and bobbing with purple Chinese yams and gold American sweet potatoes that was a sweet metaphor for the blend of cultures celebrating the New Year together.
While Wild Ginger's annual New Year's feast was certainly not the kind of Chinese food we're used to getting around here, it did live up to one familiar axiom: We're already hungry for it again. We'll just have to wait for the Year of the Dragon.