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Hunan Holiday

Not Into Baby Jesus? There's Always Room at the Inn at Sonny Lee's

Christopher Myers

Sonny Lee's Hunan Taste

Address:750 Main St.
Unit 104A
Reisterstown, MD 21136

More on Sonny Lee's Hunan Taste.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 12/24/2003

My uncle Mikey died last week, and with his passing the world has lost a celebrated picky eater. As noted in his eulogy and remembered warmly later, Mike's daily diet, for the better part of his wonderful life, consisted of salami and eggs, sometimes three times a day. Mike also enjoyed chopped liver, raw onions (eaten whole, like an apple), ketchup-and-pickle sandwiches, and a slice of bread spread with gribnis, the crispy, dried chicken skin that remains when you're rendering chicken fat, or schmaltz. Gribnis, in other words, are to chicken as cracklings are to pork.

In recent years, Mike was known to eat a salad, undressed, but for most of his eating career what few vegetables he sanctioned--cucumbers, spring onions--he took in serial fashion. Later, too, came chicken. I asked his son-in-law whether Mike had ever gone to a Chinese restaurant, and he said, "Oh, he'd go, but he wouldn't eat there."

He was with us, in spirit, when his nephews, their wives, and his grandson went out together for a post-shivah family Chinese dinner. In this space last year, I wondered whether the practice of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas day was a notion based more in self-reflective humor than reality, something Jews told themselves that they always observed even if they seldom--or never--actually did. I wondered, too, what had happened to the excitement we all once felt about Szechwan-Hunan cuisine, the ethnic fascinations of our youth, capable once of arousing passionate devotion but now dumbed-down comfort food, eclipsed by more intricate and interesting fare.

Our visit to Sonny Lee's Hunan Taste persuaded me that, in the right hands, Hunan cuisine is still capable of giving much pleasure, even surprise and delight, and that if eating Chinese food on Christmas has been only a phantom tradition, it's time to make it real.

To say that Sonny Lee's represents a reimagining of Hunan cuisine would be an exaggeration; even refinement would be going too far. What came through, though, was a level of concern and attention, some of it provided by Lee himself, that made the meal seem the product less of an assembly line than a team of real, engaged cooks.

The endless menu offers arguably every Hunan and Szechwan preparation ever encountered in the Western world. The chicken selections promise all white meat, the pork selections all pork loin; Peking duck and lobster are available, and menu sections are devoted to Chef's Suggestions and Chef's Healthy Food Suggestions. There is, as well, an entire separate menu of Japanese food, including sushi, teriyaki, and tempura. The real interest here, though, is on the page inserted up front, which includes Japanese specials and a section labeled Sonny's Corner. The tempting entrées here included crispy whole fillet of Hunan-style rockfish ($20.95), crispy salt and pepper shrimp ($14.95), and mango jumbo shrimp ($14.95).

From Sonny's Corner, we tried crispy jumbo shrimp with black bean sauce ($14.95), crispy Hunan-style soft-shell crab ($15.95), and scallion cakes wrapped with string beans and shredded beef ($13.95). No fewer than 10 lightly battered and consistently fried shrimp arrived in a perky and praiseworthy bean sauce--neither too thick or too starchy. A prettily presented dish, too, with vivid broccoli flowerets. The brown sauce accompanying a monster-sized soft-shell crab verged on the too-heavy but not enough to distract from a crunch coating or sweet crabmeat. The scallion cake platter had the same insane, over-the-top charm as a McGriddle sandwich, like something that might have been invented by stoned freshmen. Six thick fried (too thick, really) pancakes wrapped around lots of fresh green beans and tasty shredded beef and stood upright on the plate, accompanied by a zingy soy-based sauce. Two of these pancakes would have been unfinishable by most healthy eaters. Six? That's just crazy.

An entrée of ribeye steak teriyaki ($14.95) was similarly mammoth. We estimated a half-pound at least of broiled thinly sliced steak, which was somewhat underseasoned, lacking in teriyaki flavor. Other favorites around the lazy Susan included an appetizer of plump and packed steamed pork dumplings ($4.95), a plate of expertly deep-fried tofu ($3.95) with bonito flakes and a sweet tempura sauce, and the complimentary plate of sweet, crunchy cabbage that was brought to us immediately when we were seated.

All of us left with bags filled with the next day's lunch and with cash left in our wallets. Sonny Lee's has a BYOB policy, and it's amazing, isn't it, how inexpensive a meal can be when you're not paying for drinks?

Merry Gribnis to all.

Shalom for the holidays:

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