Emperor's Choice doesn't normally serve Illinois River Asian carp on its menu. But when we showed up at the Chinatown restaurant toting more than 15 pounds of the stuff in a plastic bag last Friday, chef Thomas Lui was happy to show us how it would be served on a typical Chinese table. We did call ahead and ask, though. Our meal came out in four courses as follows.
Carp soup: We started with a mild milky carp broth accented with napa cabbage and cubes of silky tofu, the most assertive flavors coming from slender strips of fresh ginger.
SUGGESTED WINE PAIRING: unoaked South African Chardonnay.
Clay pot braised carp head: Fatty and gelatinous chunks of braised fish noggin were infused with the fragrant black beans and fresh ginger, scallions, cilantro and garlic that could make anything--even jelloey fish head--taste delicious. Chef Lui tells us this is the favorite Chinese preparation for this fish because of the texture and richness of the cartilage. Plus, Eastern eaters find the steaks a pain in the neck with all of their tiny bones. The most sought after head bits come from the tender but meaty cheeks, with the eyes also being considered lucky bits, according to the man who sold us the carp, Trung Truong, owner of Five Continents grocery store in Archer Heights.
SUGGESTED WINE PAIRING: a fresh, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would be excellent with this dish.
Sweet and sour carp steaks: Deep-fried anything in a sweet, gloppy sauce can be hard to resist, but this was our least favorite of the four. Although the carp flesh remained moist--if bland--the sweet and sour sauce was a one-note affair. Slices of sweet pepper, onion and sea cucumber didn't add much else to the dish.
SUGGESTED WINE PAIRING: a nice Riesling from the Pacific Northwest or Alsace regions would be delightful with it.
Hunan-style carp steaks in kung pao sauce: This was similar to the sweet and sour preparation since the steaks were deep fried to perfection in a light batter. But here they were topped by chef Lui's famous sweet and savory kung pao sauce, redolent with fiery jalepeno slices and a shower of fresh cilantro. The ultra white moist tender flesh tasted of nothing, but with all of these other lovely flavors and textures going on, it was hardly missed. And every once in a while, as with all the dishes, a river of freshwater fish taste ran through it.
SUGGESTED WINE PAIRING: this sultry dish asks for a light-bodied Pinot Noir, as from the Carneros region of California.
Truong says that home cooks can sometimes really stink up the house with unskilled preparations of the dish. But if you can get someone like chef Lui to handle this fish--and you don't mind a lot of bones--we say it's edible.Copyright © 2015, RedEye