Magic Dragon

Dragon Court
304 Oak St. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 331-4061
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. Friday-Saturday

Ladies, throw down your knitting! Gents, put aside your mustache wax. Now is not the time for such trivial investigations--no, now is the time to start searching for Chinese dragons. I've been reading up on the critters, and I can tell you this, it ain't easy to track them. For one thing, they range in size from small as silkworms to big as galaxies. They can change color or disappear at will. And don't even think of sneaking up on them, for they are very alert to danger and are threatening when they want to be. Instead, I suggest you focus on their more appealing habits: They like music, literature, good quarrels, and naps, while their pet peeves include being taken for granted or disrespected. (Consider tuning in jazz on the radio while you read a book and clobber a loved one.) Once you finally do spot one, though, settle in for good times. Chinese dragons bring a whole lot of prosperity and good fortune whenever they're spotted.

They've certainly brought me a lot of good fortune lately. Every time I've passed beneath the dragon-adorned sign that popped up on Oak Street last November, everything starts coming up roses. Or violet, like the big violet-hued hunks of squid tentacle that arrive at Dragon Court's dining tables with a spare bit of batter clinging here and there, like lace, to their tender surfaces. Bite in and discover the resilient, crisp-tender texture that reminds me most of flower petals (order them under the misleading heading "squid-rings," $3.95). Chopped-cabbage soup sounds dour but turns out to be a tureen that smells like a sweet meadow and tastes far better than the name could ever convey ($5.95 for a large portion to share, with your choice of pork or chicken). If they're available, don't miss the little game hens crusted with salt, baked till their skin is as brittle as hard candy, their meat tender as cake.

The first time I noticed Dragon Court, which opened late last fall across the street from the Oak Street Cinema, I mostly just tried to imagine why dragons would need to litigate, and I pictured a sort of People's Court, with Puff the Magic Dragon in Judge Wapner's chair. This assumption was wrongheaded. In fact, Dragon Court is the newest venture by Robert Lee, who most recently had an eponymous restaurant in Loring Park where the King and I now stands. He cooks here with his longtime friend Jack Ma, another veteran of Twin Cities kitchens. Lee has been cooking Cantonese and Hong Kong dishes in Minneapolis for the past 42 years--42 years!--and while I never quite found what I was looking for at the old Robert Lee restaurant, I couldn't be more enthusiastic about his new place. I recommend it to anyone looking for a really good, bountiful, authentic Chinese meal.

The key to ordering here is to ignore the ordinary menu (except for the squid rings), and to sign on for whatever special banquet is offered that night. The banquets, listed on a separate sheet of paper, change weekly and cost around $10 a person for four to seven dizzying courses. The last of these feasts I had was typically satisfying. The meal started with a large, decorative pot of subgum fish-maw soup. I know that might sound a little scary to the uninitiated, but it's basically flaked-fish soup made with chicken, pork, lots of fresh shiitake mushrooms, and some things I couldn't identify, which tasted good. The overall effect is silky and mellow, enlivened with bits of salt and savor. The next treat to appear was rice, and a very large, very fresh, chopped, wok-seared lobster made with big slices of fresh ginger and scallions. The lobster was properly cooked, pulling easily from the shell, truly a perfect version of the dish. Then, shelled little Pacific clams with sautéed gai-lan, a stemmy cabbage that paired well with the sea brine of the clams.

Two more courses followed: first, a choice of greens with squid or Hong Kong pork chops. I got the pork, and it was mostly sweet. Not my favorite, but a nice contrast to the other flavors on the table. Finally, we were offered either a whole roasted duck or a fried chicken. I got the duck, made with a potent anise-scented glaze, and incredibly rich. For four people, the meal ran $39.99. While I was there a family of ten, with four little kids, came in and got the dinner for eight ($83.99), which was all of the above (proportionally larger) paired with a huge whole fried walleye and a vast seafood hot pot. I tell you, it's enough to make you go out and get a family of ten.

As far as the other restaurant amenities, Dragon Court isn't much to look at, basically just a spic-and-span fluorescent-lit box with tables. But the staff is helpful and lightning-quick, you can get a beer with your meal, and the kitchen is open late--all of which sets it far, far ahead of the pack. I talked to Robert Lee on the phone for this article, and he told me that Dragon Court was conceived basically as a place for Chinese natives to get traditional family dinners. But it has been attracting plenty of Americans, who come for the seafood. Indeed, that seafood is something special. I've got two theories to explain why it's so good. The first is that Lee hails from the port city of Hong Kong and has a deep understanding of how to cook the things that come fresh from the ocean. The other is: Chinese dragons. Chinese dragons are responsible for all things watery: The rain, the rivers, the oceans, the seas. So now that you're keeping a close eye out for them, if you see one, please, please thank them for me.

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