Culinary Nooners Part 1

This is part one of a new Under the Table series entitled “Culinary Nooners,” where I find out-of-the-ordinary lunchtime destinations so you can have a little midday mini-adventure. You know, spice up your lunch life. And at the end of the article, you can enter to WIN A FUN PRIZE.

I try to eat lunch out every day. I know the financial whiz people who write bestselling books about how every time you so much as sniff your morning latte you take one symbolic step closer to the poorhouse would scorn me, but I don’t care. My retirement plan has always been to die young and beautiful and in mid-sip of Grande Dame anyway.

When I was little, eating lunch out on the town was an rare thrill, a welcome change of scenery from my own kitchen counter, an adventure that transcended my usual noon routine of a sorrowful, concave peanut butter and jam sandwich served on my mom’s hideous floral print plates. But now that I’m all growed up and can eat lunch out whenever I want, sometimes it gets boring. The thrill is gone. I needed to spice up my lunch life.

So come lunchtime, I went to China.

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Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly China, I don’t like excessively long flights, but it was the closest thing possible–the Lan Su Chinese Garden. You know, that beautiful oasis of serenity in the center of Chinatown that you parade the family through once a year when they visit? Not only is it an excellent spot to decompress from a harrowing morning at work, but they have a marvelous teahouse within, a secret lunchtime getaway in the heart of downtown Portland.

The Chinese Garden really is a marvel, built entirely by Chinese artisan craftsmen with stone and other materials imported from our sister city Suzhou. Walking through the gardens is a soothing prelude to lunch, putting you in the mood for your culinary nooner. Take your time. Pet the foo dogs guarding the entrance, get in touch with your OCD side by tiptoeing over the intricately patterned stonework, count all the koi in Lake Zither.

The two-story tearoom (also known as the Tower of Cosmic Reflections) is located on the north end of the garden, directly across the pond from the Hall of Brocade Clouds and next to the waterfall, and is run by Portland’s own Tao of Tea.

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The teahouse’s traditional decor is as intricate and tranquilizing as the garden itself, with an elaborate tea selection and rustic wooden tables in a quiet dining room. Sometimes a gentleman plays the lute downstairs, its twangy melody lending the tearoom an extra authentic feel.

I prefer to sit upstairs. It’s not necessarily that the views are better during lunch, unless you’re quite tall, you’ll strain to see out the windows into the garden below from a sitting position, but the upstairs room has a light, lofty airy feeling to it. Besides, doesn’t everyone like being on top now and then?

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Your lunch comes with a free serving of good luck, in the form of a bright green bamboo plant that looks far healthier than mine. Maybe they water their bamboo with green tea. Maybe they water them at all, whereupon they’d definitely have one up on me.

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Special Correspondent April and I had the place to ourselves on this quiet Tuesday lunch hour, which was great, because we could gossip freely without fear of anyone eavesdropping, besides the gods, and you know they are dying to hear the latest on Tiger Woods and his 1001 mistresses like everyone else.

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April and I ordered tea to start. Since I have a slight problem with caffeine and April was sick with a head cold, we both played it a little boring and ordered off the herbal menu, but the tearoom has upwards of a half dozen pages and a vast selection of different types of tea to choose from. I told the tearoom attendant I was feeling anxious because my mother was coming into town and she recommended the Chyrsanthemum, which was very fragrant and faintly redolent of oregano. April had the mint tea to soothe her throbbing mucous membranes. I forgot to take pictures. Of the tea, not April’s membranes. Sorry.

We ordered off of the surprisingly robust menu, which has an excellent selection of small plates in addition to various tea-friendly sweets and treats like mooncakes, Mang Gong and almond cookies, horsebeans, pressed plums, green tea pumpkin seeds, candied mango, and the seasonal snack melange entitled Five Treasures Come Knocking. The menu also offers several types of sake, along with a rice wine, a Rex Hill Chardonnay and an Erath Pinot Noir.

First up was the Daikon radish salad, a small dish piled with thick rounds of tart pickled daikon in a soy vinaigrette, and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, shards of seaweed, sliced scallions, and plump, bright red goji berries. Daikon is a blood cleanser and purifier, is high in Vitamin C, and has decongestant properties. This was right up April’s sniffling, sneezing, stuffy-head alley.

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We also tried the watermelon seeds, mostly because we were intrigued by the idea of eating watermelon seeds as opposed to spitting them at people. I remarked that I hadn’t eaten a watermelon seed on purpose since second grade, when a classmate told me if I did, I could grow a watermelon in my belly. They were fibrous–like a thick-skinned sunflower seed, salty, and tasted of licorice. You can eat them whole or crack them open with your back teeth and eat the meaty innards. Eating them whole exposes you to the risk of gum splinters, just so you know.

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Next, we partook of the steamed dumplings, which were stuffed with finely chopped vegetables and glass noodles with ginger and a fermented black bean sauce, then sprinkled with the ubiquitous seaweed-scallion-sesame seed-goji berry garnish. They were light and well-seasoned, an excellent dumpling rendition.

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We also ordered the Lo Bo Gao, or Turnip Cakes. They were more like Turnip Wedges, a loosely formed mixture of turnip and daikon combined with salted cabbage, green onion and black mushrooms (aka dried shiitakes), a sort of Chinese polenta. They were served with a dollop of fiery Sriracha chili sauce and topped with a deliciously pungent basil sauce  and, you guessed it, seaweed, scallions, sesame seeds, and goji berries.

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And finally we tried the Taoist Delight Noodles, a bowl of thin transparent Chinese rice noodles tossed with “longevity mushroom and garlic sauce,” vegetables, roasted sesame, ginger, and firebird, which is another way of saying smoked turkey, apparently. The firebird was delicious, it tasted like ham.  The dish was capped with a healthy thatch of freshly grated carrot, and I don’t think it will be surprising to you that atop that was a sprinkling of seaweed, scallions, sesame seeds, and goji berries.

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April and I left the teahouse feeling rested, rejuvenated, revived–as though we’d just taken a mini-vacation to an exotic and tranquil land, even though in reality, we were in the middle of Chinatown, which is generally not described as either exotic or tranquil. We also left with the distinct urge to top everything we ate in the next few days with seaweed, scallions, sesame seeds, and goji berries, but there are far worst urges to return from a mini-vacation with. Montezuma’s Revenge comes to mind.

And that concludes this installment of “Culinary Nooners.” If you’re thinking this sounds like an excellent luncheon excursion, you can enter to WIN ONE OF FIVE PAIRS OF PASSES to the Chinese Garden by signing up for my weekly newsletter, Table Scraps. Just click here. This promotion ends Monday, Dec. 28th at midnight. 好运气! (I think this means, Good Luck!) 

Tao of Tea Teahouse at the Lan Su Chinese Garden * Corner of NW Everett & NW 3rd * Daily 10am-4:30pm * 503.224.8455 * Website