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The Good China

Authentic cuisine in Matthews

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When Wenda Chen bought the Ruby Palace in Matthews he added the word Bistro and thought everyone would know the place had changed from a buffet style Chinese spot to a restaurant. Not everyone has caught on, and that was three years ago. In 2000 Chef Chen sold his share and left the kitchen of Dim Sum Chinese Restaurant on Central Avenue to strike out on his own at the 136-seat Ruby Palace Bistro. Chen, who specializes in Cantonese cuisine, had also been the chef at the old Ho Toy (when it was Chinese, not Thai) in Plaza Midwood. A native of Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), Chen trained at the renowned Pan Xi Restaurant in that city.Ruby Palace Bistro is not an Americanized Chinese restaurant. No buffet here, and the phone is not always answered by an English speaker. Several days went by before I found a person in the establishment who spoke English. Finally the Manager Bob ("Not my Chinese name, but easier") Lam came to my rescue. He is, however, usually on hand during the dinner hours to help with any questions.

In the kitchen with Chen are another chef from Guangzhou, and one who came to Charlotte via a restaurant in the five star Sofitel Jin Jiang Tower hotel in Shanghai.

Of all the regional cuisines in China, Cantonese is the one considered haute. As the old Chinese proverb says, "If you want good food, go to Guangzhou." Because of the subtropical climate, the growing season is year round, allowing chefs to depend on the freshest ingredients. Cantonese chefs are known for their light touch with ingredients and the foods are slightly undercooked to stress the natural flavors. The foods of Shanghai, a major international seaport in the estuary of the Yangtze River, stress flavors which are heavier, sweeter, and oilier.

One would think that China's cuisines, thousands of years old and feeding a billion daily, would be better known in the United States. Unfortunately cuisines such as Hunan and Cantonese are infrequently authentically produced on this side of the globe, with the notable exceptions of San Francisco and New York. Cantonese has become benign and ordinary. We want spicy or crispy in dishes that historically are slow-cooked, salty, and sweet. American Chinese food bears faint resemblance to actual Chinese. Why? One reason is the American diet eschews fat, bones, certain animals, and offal. Another is we've come to expect Chinese food to be inexpensive. Yet genuine Chinese, like French cuisine, uses fresh, often expensive ingredients that must be precisely cooked by a highly skilled chef.

Plus we have translated Chinese cuisine, and restaurateurs are only too happy to give us what we want. People often ask me where the good ethnic restaurants are in Charlotte. Often you may be sitting in one and ordering from the wrong menu. Many Chinese restaurants have two menus, one for you, one for ex-pats. Ruby Palace Bistro conveniently offers both menus together. The staff will help you through the hodgepodge of tourist foods to the authentic food. Sure you can get General Tso, Sa Cha chicken, and fried rice here. But should you? Especially when Ruby Palace Bistro has so much more to offer from the "Authentic" side of the menu.

In that section the appetizers are listed as "Two Assorted Cold Plate," "Three Assorted Cold Plate," "Four . . " -- you get the idea. Prices start at $10 and go up in five-dollar increments. The Special order cold plate for $50 must be ordered in advance. The choices change daily depending on what is fresh in the kitchen. One evening, thinly sliced jellyfish arrived, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Duck morsels were cooked to crispy perfection and piled high on another plate. A third plate offered sliced, supple marinated squid. A helpful palate-cleansing tray of pickles accompanied these delicacies.

Entrees are, however, the main event. My favorite was their sizzling chicken hot pot specialty with soft pillowy mushrooms mixed with tender slices of chicken breast, and whole garlic cloves doused in a savory light sauce. The soft shell crab was lightly battered, deep fried, and tasty. Another hit was the tender beef with sugar peas in an oyster sauce. Yeah, you've had it before, but this time it was so good it made you realize how much bad Chinese food you have been eating.

Ruby's isn't a red-walled, rounded-archway, hanging-lantern kind of place. The interior is angled and plain and the booth banquettes are stiff, perhaps too stiff. But the food comes quickly. The ingredients are fresh. The spirit is generous.

The Chinese believe the messier the tablecloth, or in this case the Horoscope mat, the more successful the meal. The flaky fried soft shell crab and flying chop sticks at our table left behind sure signs of a happy meal.

Eaters' Digest
Update on North Carolina's wine import law: As noted previously in this column, NC wineries had been permitted to ship their wines out of state (CL 02/08/2002, 10/04/1997) to those consumers who live in states not prohibiting wine imports, but NC consumers cannot buy directly from out-of-state wineries. However, in April the 4th District Court affirmed a lower court finding in the case of Beskind v Easley that the direct shipping law violated the Commerce Clause, but decided to strike the Farm Winery Act rather than the direct shipment laws. The decision is under appeal.

South Carolina just become the 24th state to legalize direct shipment of wine to consumers. Out-of-state wineries can ship up to 24 bottles per month per consumer (21 years/+). Wineries must pay a $400 privilege fee every two years.

Background: On December 1, 1997, North Carolina Senate Bill 994 went into effect making "it unlawful for any person who is an out-of-state retail or wholesale dealer in the business of selling alcoholic beverages to ship directly or cause to be shipped any alcoholic beverage directly to any NC resident who does not hold a valid wholesaler's permit." Conviction could result in a fine of up to $10,000 and a maximum imprisonment term of eight months. Bill 994 was rushed (initiated in March and passed in July) through the legislature and signed into law on August 1, 1997. The bill, introduced by Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland County, was supported by then House Representative Majority Leader Leo Daughtry, co-owner of North Carolina's largest wine and beer distributor, Mutual Distributing Co.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance.

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