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.

TABLEHOPPING:

WHITHER THE PERFECT M-BALLS?

Q: "Where can you get a decent bowl of matzo-ball soup in this town? I'm a transplant to Minneapolis and was left kinda empty by Zaroff's soup and Cecil's soup. Is there another place I don't know about? I want SOUP!!!"

--Matzo-less in Minneapolis

A:Matzo-less, for you, we do the impossible. For you, we part the seas. On receipt of your plea, I called Michael Morse, owner of downtown Minneapolis's café un deux trois and creator of unbelievable Seder meals, and explained the problem. Morse started rifling around his kitchen--"We've got matzo meal!"--and talking to his chefs. One volunteered, and shazam! Soup. "We're not going to do a Seder-Seder," explained Morse, "but we'll do baked chicken, potato pancakes, and matzo-ball soup over Pesach. Only over Pesach." That's Sunday, April 8 through Sunday, April 15. Ask and it shall be given unto you. You'd better make it in there. café un deux trois, 114 S. Ninth St., Minneapolis; (612) 673-0686.

DINE DELUXE, GUILT-FREE: Tonight, Wednesday, March 28, un deux trois is hosting a special benefit to help the homeless. A three-course prix-fixe dinner will be served for $40 per person, and all profits will be donated to the Greg Horan fund at the Minneapolis Foundation. "I was feeling philanthropic, feeling giving-back, feeling all that warm fuzzy stuff that doesn't overtake me all that often," lies gruff Morse, who just got done hosting an AIDS benefit. "Almost all of us are three, four, or five paychecks from being homeless ourselves," he notes. "For a minute I thought we should serve truck-stop coffee, bad soup, Spam, peas, and carrots out of a can. Then we'd all really be thinking of homelessness. But we're not doing that. What we're doing is a good thing. Have a wonderful meal in a wonderful restaurant, and help people."

DRINK IN THE SUN, GUILT-FREE: They got spirit yes they do, they got spirit how 'bout you? Seems like only yesterday that northeast Minneapolis was the cutest example of picturesque decay, a church on every corner, a gently smiling old lady crimping pierogies in every kitchen, a plaque in every artery. No more! By my calculations, real estate in Northeast went up a zillion percent in the Nineties, and the neighborhood experienced the greatest per capita restaurant boom in human history. And they did it all while maintaining the best of the old community. Don't buy it? Then swing by one of two extraordinary events being sponsored by East Side Neighborhood Services, a community group that's been going strong since 1915. The first is a chili cook-off at Mayslack's on May 5, from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. Fifteen bucks snares you five bowls of chili out of a possible twenty varieties (including vegetarian chili), as well as five beers, provided by old-fashioned Minnesota brewers Summit, James Page, and the Minnesota Brewing Company. There will be a polka band on hand to provide extra levity, and don't even feel guilty about running off with five bowls of chili with all the trimmings, five beers, and polka music for the price of a pair of movie tickets: All proceeds go to ESNS's Senior Food Shelf. Mayslack's Music Lounge, 1428 Fourth St. NE; (612) 789-9862.

Then, if your good works haven't exhausted you, ESNS rolls out the pièce de résistance: The Fifth Annual East Side Wine Tasting, which promises so much gustatory indulgence I can barely bring myself to contemplate the dry days that separate us from Thursday, May 17 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion. Okay--get ready for this: $25 in advance (or $30 at the door) nets tastes of some 150 wines, provided by Surdyk's and River Liquors, as well as heaping plates of signature treats, both savory and sweet, from at least 16 northeast restaurants, including Gardens of Salonica, Jax Cafe, Erté, Bobino, Nicollet Island Inn, Nye's Polonaise Room, Gasthof Zur Gemütlichkeit, Sophia's, Marino's Restaurant, and the Surdyk's Cheese Shop. "We usually get 600 or 700 people," says Katherine Cohen, development director of ESNS. "I see people walking around with plates just heaped with food--it's all so good."

Good, and that other kind of good too: Every bite you take benefits the 18 social services ESNS funds, including park centers, a family violence program, a summer camp for kids, a program to help Somali widows adapt to life in Minnesota, and senior daycare. Donate another $10 for entrance to the Cigar Tent, where you may puff stogies and sample cognacs and other spirits. Not enough for you? Well, it's the neighborhood that keeps on giving: They'll also throw in live music, festive decorations by Northeast kite collectors, free parking at De La Salle High School, a free shuttle to the pavillion, and, of course, the peerless beauty of spring on the Mississippi. Call East Side Neighborhood Services for more information: (612) 781-6011.

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