Yujean Kang PHOTO: Courtesy of Yujean Kang’s

Back to school

Yujean Kang’s 20th anniversary specials educate the discriminating diner

By Dan O'Heron 08/25/2011

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Chef Yujean Kang, now in his 20th year in Pasadena, admits that he has cared as much about cultivating sophisticated tastes as indulging them.

Kang strongly indicated to me that he would like more Pasadenans to learn what it’s like to eat in the finer restaurants of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipai — not the hotel restaurants for tourists, but private places that cater to traders and shoguns. And, if the fleet’s in, sailors with gold stripes, not watch caps.

“Many people come to my restaurant only because they’ve heard that it’s the thing to do. And many,” confided Kang, “do not have subtle enough tastes to appreciate what fine dining is all about.”

Not speaking in a haughty or disdainful way, but more in the tone of a teacher imbuing a class with the love of learning, Kang has set up lesson plans for his 20th anniversary that should court a wider audience for distinctive eating.

With many new, moderately priced lunch and dinner specials, Kang’s endeavors seem like he’s trying not so much to show off in directing his audience, but assisting people in those disciplines of eating on which meaningful judgments are made. And he likes to admit that the tougher the audience, the better: A good eater makes for a good cook.

Pure hunger is not fussy about the food that feeds it. Kang reminds us that the best appetites develop as one digs in to carefully prepared dishes served in the right sequence, like his new $20-per-person dinner tasting special.
In this, you begin with savory, thin-walled shrimp and garlic and chive dumplings, followed by a hot and sour fish chowder. With the welcome taste of a fisherman’s stew made fresh from the sea, the chowder should heighten your expectations for the entreés.

Guests can choose from six, including a crispy filet of beef tenderloin with baby bok choy (a white mustard cabbage) or a sauteéd filet of beef tenderloin with snow peas — those tiny delectable seeds in an almost translucent green pod. Another choice is a sautéed fish filet in Chinese rice and wine sauce with wood ear mushrooms that are cut to delightfully absorb the taste of the ingredients.

On Fridays and Saturdays only, another choice is a pork belly with peppery mustard greens and tofu knots. Chef Kang has an alchemic knack for turning high-protein bean curds into healthy gourmet treats. Like the wood ear mushroom, tofu has a little nutty flavor of its own but maintains the chameleon-like capability of sponging up and changing flavors to match the foods with which it is prepared.

Recently at a tofu dinner with matching wines, Kang prepared five special tofu dishes, including ones with chicken and Chinese ham and beef and sour cabbage. Compared to other Chinese restaurants, Kang’s wine list is what Dom Perignon is to Diet Pepsi. In fact, it’s better than that: Moet Chandon, Dom Perignon, 2002, Epernay at $250 a bottle reflects only a median price on his tête de cuvée menu.

Back on Earth, geared to court a wider audience, more than 20 lunch specials at $7 and $8 each will stand up to the toughest cost/benefit analysis. Served with chicken salad and steamed jasmine rice, dishes include shrimp with minced chicken, Chinese eggplant with ground pork, miso, soy sauce and shaved bonito — the strongest flavored of all tunas — plus spicy tofu with ground pork.

Oddly, those of Kang’s teachings that extend the horizons of Chinese cookery beyond chop suey seem to be more appreciated by exchange students than locals: In 1999, he cooked a full course dinner for the James Beard Foundation in New York. Rave reviews have appeared in outstanding eastern media outlets like Gourmet and Esquire magazines. Usually, it doesn’t matter how California restaurants boil, bake or sauté, eastern writers leave no burn unstoned.

Appearing in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Irene Virbila wrote of one Kang creation: “Rolled with a smear of plum sauce into crepes, the succulent bird is as good a Peking duck as I’ve had in this country and I feel lucky to be eating it.”

It’s time for more lucky Pasadenans to go to class.

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