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[Eat It]: Yisheng Yue Wei

Cheap and cheerful Yisheng Yue Wei Yongkang Lu does classic Cantonese cuisine without all the bells and whistles.
2011-05-31 16:35:14

Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

I constantly scour this city for holes in the wall, those cheap and cheerful establishments with a floor space the size of a fapiao. Most don't make the cut because I don't want to stick to anything when I sit down. When I find a new one, I see it as something of hunting trophy. So allow me to show you the latest acquisition to my collection, a little eatery on Yonkang Lu called Yisheng Yue Wei.

What Yisheng (Eason in its Anglicized signage) does is home-style Cantonese cuisine, dispensing with all of the cruel ostentation of bird's nest and shark's fin. Rather, if you're Cantonese, this is the kind of stuff Mom used to make -- comforting, yet surprisingly complex, like this dish...

It's just a humble stew of tofu with dried oysters and chunks of chicken; a rich, fragrant heavily extracted chicken broth thickened with a bit of corn starch binds it all together. The chef demonstrates a keen sense of balance here. There is so much going on and each constituent element is present on the palate. You can even distinguish the subtle differences in salinity between the oysters and the chicken stock. And the tofu is fantastic -- dense and silky like custard.

Steamed food is a southern staple. It features prominently here. The Qingyuan steamed chicken, is a good place to start. The Cantonese tend to take a hands-off approach in the kitchen, preferring to let food speak for itself. That's why all you see on this plate is a steamed chicken served with fresh ginger, garlic, and oil as a dipping sauce.

The chef has a particular affinity for preserved and fermented condiments, too. It certainly works for steamed spare ribs.

You'll see this dish on a lot of tables, all slathered up and sloppy in a sauce of fermented black beans, ginger, and sweet scallion bulbs.

With fish, on the other hand, it's a riskier proposition. When a restaurant smothers a sole with a salty sauce of preserved winter vegetables, you have to wonder what they're covering up. But I get the sense that this is an honest kitchen. That this place is so clean indicates a certain measure of pride in their product, and ultimately, the dish works really well. There's just enough ginger in it to cut some of the pungent flavor of the winter vegetables. The fish is more or less marinated in the stuff as it steams, so the flavor is infused throughout. If you've got a problem with bones, however, be warned: This fish has loads. If it's available, you might want to just settle for the snapper. Look for "big-eyed chicken" on the menu. Why do they call it a "chicken?" For the life of me, I have no idea. The only remotely satisfactory answer I got, from a Cantonese no less, was "because the snapper has big eyes."

Shaguo, or claypot cooking, is another style you'll see a lot of here. They do terrific water spinach with shrimp paste. I've recommend this vegetable elsewhere in town recently. It's just so good this time of year that it's idiot proof. Yisheng's is perfect -- sweet and just crisp enough that it gives way to your teeth with in one bite.

And the best part: It's all cheap! So cheap. Most dishes average around 28rmb and round out toward the top end at 68. Two people could easily get out of here paying no more than 90 kuai. 120 if you feel like splurging a bit. Local foodies are already wise to this, so the place fills up fast. Fortunately, they take reservations. Unfortunately, they don't speak English, so muster up those basic Mandarin skills.

For a listing of Yisheng Yue Wei, click here.