Good literature may not necessarily change your life, but it can revolutionize the way you feel about certain foodstuffs. For instance after reading Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, a Japanese novella about death, transvestitism, and cooking school, I came away not with a new understanding of love and grief, but with a deep craving for katsudon. Banana Yoshimoto, whose very name is tasty, devotes a lot of space to describing this dish of fried pork served in broth over rice, and even uses it as a catalyst for bringing together two lovers. I couldn't wait to find a restaurant that would serve katsudon just the way Yoshimoto describes it: "Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and onions handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up the broth...."
Well, it's only taken me six years, but I've finally located the perfect katsudon. Lan, a month-old pan-Asian restaurant located in South Miami's Dadeland Station, cooks the pork-and-rice dish to Yoshimoto's specifications. The succulent pork -- "good quality meat" -- was fried up with scrambled eggs and aromatic white onions, then layered over a bowl of sticky rice and doused with a slightly sweet, slightly salty soy broth. The textures were ideally counterpointed, and the flavors complementary. What a satisfying and strangely exhilarating dish. If I didn't already have a husband, I'd do exactly what Mikage, the heroine of Kitchen, does after tasting her katsudon: She asks the chef to make another one and takes it to the man she wants as her lover. And yes, she gets the result she desires. After sampling the pork, her intended asks her: "'Why is it that everything I eat when I'm with you is so delicious?'" She answers, "'Could it be you're satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?'"
What a joy when a good restaurant can do both.
Lan calls itself pan-Asian, and many of the dishes, such as the fresh spring roll appetizer or the snapper with red-curry seafood sauce entree, incorporate Thai and Malaysian influences. A wonderfully fresh seafood and green papaya salad ($6.95), the shredded fruit hiding a wealth of tender shrimp, mussels, and calamari, takes its cues from Vietnam. An appetizer of Chinese potstickers, the homemade dough stuffed with your choice of minced chicken and mushrooms or spinach and chives, was sumptuous; another starter of glazed baby-back ribs ($5.95) featured on-the-bone nuggets napped with a sticky, spicy sauce as addictive as nicotine. And a hearty yet delicately fleshed rainbow trout, just lightly floured and pan-fried, was served whole, as it might be in a Chinese restaurant. (In fact the menu has been evolving, and even in the two times I've been there I've seen some dishes come and go. So call first for prices or to negotiate particular cravings.)
But for the most part, Lan, which is owned by the folks who run the Su-Shin chain, has a Japanese sensibility. And a creative one at that. Although the sushi bar offers an array of some of the most buttery raw fish I've had in this city (order a $15.95 platter of sashimi for an elegantly designed meal of tuna, salmon, mackerel, yellowtail, shrimp, octopus, and a few other luscious tidbits), the truest inspiration lies in the rolls. Rather than list every possible combination of cucumber, crab, avocado, et cetera, Lan actually prepares some original treats, including the Thai bomb, which is shrimp and calamari infused with lemon grass and chili, then rolled in rice; and crab Rangoon, which uses won ton crisps in the crab-cream cheese interior. A fragrant ume shiso roll ($3.50) incorporates cucumber, shiso leaves (related to mint), and pickled plum (really a misnomer for Japanese apricots). This last roll, a very traditional Japanese combination, was more cooling than a smoothie: a perfect antidote to shopping at major chain stores in the summer heat.
Even more refreshing, a cold Korean noodle dish could serve as a light main course or a side to share. Despite its Korean label, we thought this dish was just a version of Japanese harusame, the buckwheat noodles garnished with crabstick, cucumber, and egg, then soaked in a pleasant rice vinegar. On the other hand, given the Japanese occupation of Korea for the first part of this century, perhaps the crossover isn't so bizarre. Garlic beef tataki ($11.95) was another Japanese-inspired entree, filling but not heavy. Sliced skirt steak had been seared, sliced, and served rare over a mound of wilted spinach, then speckled with garlic and daikon radish. This last dish rivals the katsudon, at the moment, for my favors.
Unlike many Japanese or pan-Asian eateries, however, Lan doesn't cheat on its portions, so order accordingly in anticipation of dessert. We sampled two worth notice: the fried spring rolls stuffed with a spiced combo of pumpkin and apple, and fried won ton noodles glazed with bittersweet chocolate. Like the solicitous but reserved service, the sweets were not overdone.
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Its culinary success notwithstanding, I worry a little about Lan, and not just because the eatery is difficult to find, tucked away in Dadeland Station, or that it seems too reasonably priced to pay its rent. It's that the restaurant is located on the ground floor of one of the most poorly designed shopping malls in the city. A couple of years ago reports were published about the unstable infrastructure of this place, which experts claimed could be rattled into oblivion by the nearby Metrorail. (The problems supposedly have been fixed.) I'd hate to see this spare, L-shaped dining room with its glowing periwinkle walls and scrubbed tile floors collapse. But should the high ceiling cave in on me while I'm slurping down katsudon, at least I'll go out the way I want: satisfied of both hunger and lust.
8332 S Dixie Hwy, South Miami; 305-661-8141. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner from 5:30 till 10:30 p.m.
Ume shiso $3.50
Glazed baby-back ribs $5.95
Seafood and green papaya salad $6.95
Garlic beef tataki $11.95