2190 Bancroft Way (at Oxford), Berkeley | 510.843.7996 | website
lunch 11:30 a.m – 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m.
A few weeks ago, my friend Ben from Focus:Snap:Eat, organized a multi-course spring banquet at Great China restaurant in Berkeley. Great China had closed due to a fire two years and reopened in December 2013, completely remodeled at a larger building that is just a block away from the original location. The new facility is large and airy with tall ceilings and has a sleek modern edge that definitely has appeal to the younger crowds. It was bustling and there was a bit of a line out front when we arrived, which is always a good sign. Joining us were local blogger friends, Christine of East Bay Dish, and Brenda of Bites & Bourbon, me and my husband Mr. K. Although there were only five of us, we sampled seven courses from the dinner menu, which ended up being quite a lot of food. We began with Sizzling Rice Soup ($9.95), a clear flavorful broth filled with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, which is brought to the table and puffed rice is added that sizzles and steams in dramatic fashion. It was one of my favorites from way back, and we found this to be a very fine rendition.
We had a medium order of one of their classic appetizers the Double Skin ($19.95), a specialty of Shandong cuisine, which is a northern coastal province that is the ancestral home of the Yu family (which has run the restaurant for nearly thirty years). It arrives beautifully arranged on the platter, a mound of freshly made mung bean flat noodles surrounded by blanched julienned carrots, cucumber, egg crepe, calamari, shrimp, sea cucumber, sautéed onions, mushroom, and thin slices of marinated pork.
Our server mixed in a bowl of sautéed black mushrooms and onions along with a couple of sauces, most notably a spicy mustard sauce that added a wonderful vibrancy to each bite.
The resulting dish was full of zesty flavors and a variety of textures. It was refreshing and light, one that we all loved.
We shared the Guo Ta Tofu (9.95) gloriously battered and fried squares of tofu which have a lovely contrast of texture between the delicately crisp fried crust and the custardy interior that dissolves in your mouth, topped with fragrant garlic, cilantro, scallions and swimming in a delectably sweet soy based sauce.
The one dish everyone came for was the Peking Roast Duck ($34.95), which the restaurant is known for. It is served with 24 sheer pancakes that were folded up very neatly that proved to be quite difficult to pull apart.
The thin pancakes required concentration and effort and we mostly agreed that we would have preferred the more substantial breadier bun that is easy to pull apart. The duck however, was marvelous. The thin slices of tender rich flesh were rendered of fat, there were piles of delectably crisped skin which was so delicious wrapped up with the thin julienned slices of pungent scallion and savory hoisin sauce. And much as we wished for the breadier bun, the thin wrap did allow the flavors of the duck to shine through.
Fried food fiend that I am, I pretty much insisted that we order the Walnut prawns ($15.95) even though I know that Ben is not into fried foods and probably would never order this american monstrosity. But I heard that this was one of the better versions around and felt that it was our civic duty as bloggers to try it… The prawns were succulent and large, fresh from the fryer they were initially crisp, and tossed with crunchy candied walnuts and a tart creamy rich tasting sauce that wasn’t too gloopy with mayonnaise. Within minutes the batter became less crisp and overall it was a little sweet for my taste, but I finished the dish off since it was my own doing after all…
I really liked the twice-cooked pork ($9.95) a dish with two types of pork (thin slices of belly and thicker ones of shoulder) stir-fried with cabbage, mushrooms and chili peppers in a spicy savory sauce.
Ben always likes to order fresh vegetables, so we had an order of Sauteed snow pea leaves with bits of century eggs and egg white, ($14.95), the leaves were crunchy and quite salty, I think there were roasted garlic cloves in there too.
The food was tasty but didn’t knock my socks off and I am still left with a hankering for crispy duck skin in a bun. And then there’s the service… we had quite a time with our bossy waitress who said we needed three orders of the clams and wouldn’t let us order anything less. The timing of the meal was strangely off; the soup arrived immediately upon order so that Brenda and Christine were still up at the front of the restaurant filming their intro and totally missed the grand entrance of the sizzling rice soup, which neither had ever seen before…. Then the rest of the dishes showed up all at once and we had to stack the platters in order to make room for everything.
A feast it was, although it really didn’t feel like a banquet, as we felt rather rushed and bullied. I had a great time though with the wonderful company and quite tasty food, and would definitely come back for the double skin and to further explore the menu.