The Mein Attraction

If restaurants, as some say, have become the theater of the Nineties, then Ken Chan should grab the award for best actor. Or maybe for special effects. Chef and owner of Peking Noodle Gourmet Chinese Restaurant, Chan has carried the theater image a step beyond metaphor, to actual performance. And when you catch his act, which he stages three times every night (except Monday when they're closed), you'll see why his talent deserves recognition.

Chan is a master of a nearly lost art known as ly-mein, or noodle-making. You may have seen an example of this culinary sleight-of-hand on television, but it is a rare treat to witness it live A at least anywhere outside China itself. And even there, ly-mein chefs are far from common.

For sixteen years Chan has been perfecting his skills at ly-mein, which he first learned from his mentor, head chef at the original Peking Noodle (in Peking, naturally). Though he has no immediate plans to begin teaching the process here in Miami, it's not for lack of desire on his part. It's simply that this ancient art takes too long to learn, which is one of the reasons it has become the kitchen equivalent of an endangered species.

In addition to dedicated practice, ly-mein requires a sense of showmanship from its practitioners. Chan does not disappoint. His demonstrations at Peking Noodle (at 6:30, 8:00, and 9:00 p.m. six nights) are equal parts Julia Childs and David Copperfield. On our first visit, we were not exactly sure what to expect. Prior to curtain time, our waiter drew for us an evocative verbal picture of the chef in action A a Spiderman superhero, with noodles streaming from his hands instead of silken webs. The restaurant's manager, Sharon Tam, put it another way. Ly-mein, she said, can be compared to tai chi, the graceful martial-art form that resembles ballet more than combat. "Balance" is a word that surfaced often in her description: physical balance to keep the delicate noodles from breaking or falling apart; mental balance to foster the intense concentration required. Tam added lightly that ly-mein is not something that can be attempted at home with correct results. Even before we saw Chan perform, we easily grasped that.

Announced with little fanfare by our waiter, Chan wheeled his cart of noodle-making wares A a board dusted with flour and a mound of dough A to the front of the small dining room. Using a fine rice flour imported from China, he began twisting a foot-long length of dough, then twirling it like a lariat as it stretched and thinned. Occasionally he would slam this on the table with a dramatic flourish, rub it with more flour A presumably to absorb some of the moisture A and stretch it again. Then Chan separated the noodles by slapping them against the table, breaking the rice rope at precisely the midway point, then again into fourths, and again into eighths, each time somehow managing to keep the strands apart while simultaneously stretching them. Watching this rapid multiplication from a single piece of dough was akin to seeing a magician pull a menagerie from the confines of a top hat. Within seconds Chan was displaying a skein of noodles, all evenly cut, as thin or thick as he chose to create them. The performance ended as undramatically as it had begun, with Chan simply collapsing his elegant handiwork back into a lump of dough. All three tables of diners applauded the master's efforts as he returned to the kitchen. You see, unlike other restaurant's table-side theatrics, the demonstration you watch is not the meal you eat.

The noodles' next appearance is at your table, in their finished form, cooked with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or scallops. Tender and wonderfully delicious, ly-mein lends credence to the supposition that Western pasta originated in China and was carried out by the intrepid Marco Polo.

In northern China, where the weather turns icy, a meal of noodles is as traditional as a cup of hot tea: warm the body with a belly full of natural fuel. It seems natural that Chan should have received his remarkable ly-mein training in seasonal Peking, and fortunate for us that his advanced degree in dough isn't limited to noodles. He also prepares a dumpling skin so ethereal it rivals the finest silk for delicacy. Chan's homemade dumplings are a logical starter for dinner.

Another standard opener is hot-and-sour soup, stocked with pork, egg, bean curd, and spices. Chan's version of this traditional favorite makes no compromise to pallid American tastes. It is hot. Chili sauces and soups, however, can be adjusted upon request. If only the base of the wonton soup could have been similarly adjusted; the flavorless concoction was obviously made with a phantom hen, tasting more like hot water than hearty broth. Even so, outstanding wontons more than redeemed the watery brew. Like his dumplings, Chan's wontons were molded pork and whole shrimp balls held together with a light noodle dough.

However delectable the starters, the main courses are not to be overlooked. The chicken sauteed in chilled bean paste (marinated poultry and fresh scallions in a wine sauce with green pepper, sweet balanced with green pepper) and Yu Hsiang shrimp (a dish that is, as the menu states, "superbly subtle, not scarringly hot") are two excellent choices. Chef Chan's talents with the wok are as impressive as his ly-mein artistry.

Finely prepared dinners are not all Peking Noodle has to offer. Friday through Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., the restaurant presents dim sum, a limited but not limiting menu of appetizers, soups, noodles, and dumplings. The various dishes are wheeled on carts around the dining room in the manner of a dessert tray. You simply point at a plate and it is transfered to your place setting. Servings are typically small, two or three pieces to a portion. Peking Noodle's favored dim sum dishes A among the best I've found south of New York and east of San Francisco A are made to order in the kitchen. These include pan-fried or steamed seafood dumplings, crunchy pan-fried green onion cakes, steamed pork or vegetable buns, and fried bread rolls.

The dim sum menu also accounts for heartier appetites, as the house specialty (ly-mein) is served in soup or with shredded meat, such as the duck with pickles. We tried the dandan chili noodles, long strings in a sweltering broth that matches Miami for heat. Our mistake was not in downing this piquant mixture but in also ordering the boiled pork dumplings in chili sauce. Even my eyebrows were sweating.

The emphasis at Peking Noodle is on quality and authenticity. Monosodium glutamate is a foreign substance in Chan's kitchen, as are hybrids like chow mein and egg foo young. He imports most of his signature ingredients A rice flour, wine, herbs, spices A directly from Peking to create his Szechuan and Mandarin specialties, his northern buns and cakes. Chan says he chose Miami for his first American restaurant because he hoped for sophisticated diners with a talent for uncovering culinary treasures. He certainly hasn't disappointed us. We must not disappoint him.


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