Sunday, January 17, 2010

Southern Chinese Comfort Food (or, The New Territories Cuisine of Bon Marche Bistro)

When visiting a restaurant for the first time, one of the greatest joys is in discovering a place that's so down-to-earth and cozy that it feels like you're dining in someone's home. And while there are comfy hole-in-the-walls and smaller family-run restaurants, places like Bon Marche Bistro (B Ge Wei Chun Tsai) take it to a whole other level with a completely open kitchen that takes up most of the restaurant floor space, separated from the customers by only a short, sushi bar-like counter top. Add to that, the fact that Bon Marche Bistro is a specialist in New Territories / Hong Kong cuisine and you have the potential for something special.

I first heard about Bon Marche years ago from Chandavkl, hearing the reports of a New Territories cuisine restaurant piqued my interest, and over the course of the past year and 8 visits, I've come to really appreciate Chef-Owner Joseph Li's cooking and approach. Originally hailing from Hong Kong, Chef Li learned all about cooking and the kitchen in his early years, growing up with the family restaurant business. His family has been cooking and running restaurants since before his great, great grandfather, with their family recipes having a confluence of New Territories (the largest and northernmost area of the region of Hong Kong), Hakka and Hong Kong cuisines. He later moved to England, France and Japan to further hone his skills and cook, and was a Head Chef for Crystal Cruises (which explains all the pictures of luxury liners along the walls :). Chef Li then moved to Los Angeles, hired as a Chef at the New Otani Hotel for a while, and actually retired a few years ago. But he explains that he opened up Bon Marche Bistro because he couldn't give up cooking, and wanted a place that people could come in and enjoy a home-cooked meal.

The first time I walked into Bon Marche I was slightly taken aback by the openness of the layout: With the completely open kitchen, low separation and the kitchen being located on the dining room floor, you can see what Chef Li is doing from any table in the dining area. And on the low counter top he displays whatever fresh Vegetables he's bought from the market for that day, along with whatever Seafood he's bought as well (in a refrigerated glass case along the other side). It's like he's baring his soul (with nothing to hide about his cooking) and inviting anyone who walks in to dinner at his house.

After admiring the bewildering kaleidoscopic decor along the walls, a scan over their menu reveals some familiar dishes and not so familiar ones: The Dim Sum section is standout in that for a small, hole-in-the-wall (i.e., non-giant, Hong Kong "seafood palace"), they actually offer up 22 Dim Sum items that can be ordered for lunch or dinner(!) (FYI: Dim Sum isn't usually offered for dinner). Their Porridge, Rice, Noodle section of the menu features the most commonly found items around many San Gabriel Valley restaurants (items like Baked Grilled Pork Chop Rice, Fish Ball Noodle Soup, etc.). But then seeing sections like the "Sak Kong" Military Camp Cuisine catches my interest, and the largest section of the menu, "Traditional Village Main Dish," is where Chef Li's cooking really shines.

(Note: All English Dish Names are listed from the menu. Chinese Names are written from a phonetic point-of-view when possible to help with pronunciation. Thanks to my SGV Hounds for the help on translation. :)

During my first visit, my guest has a morbid curiosity and insists that we order their Rou Zhi Xiao Long Bao (listed as "Steamed Dumpling"). I realize we're probably asking for trouble, ordering this Eastern Chinese specialty at a Southern Chinese restaurant, but my guest wants to try it.

The Xiao Long Bao are a little too thick for the skin, but has a surprisingly good broth: Very savory and porky. It's not going to dethrone any of the popular XLB specialists around So Cal, but it's decent.

The one item I'm excited about trying the most is their Pahn Tsai, listed on their menu in Chinese only, but easily identifiable by the highlighted section (ring border around it), with numerals listing "2 (people) $5.90 / 4 (people) $11.90 / 6 (people) $17.90, etc." Bon Marche's Pahn Tsai arrives in a cute wooden/metal bucket, and features layers and layers of different meats and vegetables in a light broth.

Our server (who we later find out is Chef Li's wife, and is cashier and busboy as well) explains that pretty much any of the "Traditional Village Main Dishes" can be ordered and served atop this Pahn Tsai bowl, and she notes that by doing so, you allow the sauce and flavors of the main dish you order seep down into the layers of the Pahn Tsai items below it. But we start with their simplest version, the Pahn Tsai by itself with no other toppings.

At its core, this is a bowl of various vegetables and meat, cooked in a light broth. The Yu Wan (Fish Meatball), Zhu Rou Wan (Pork Meatball), Bai Tsai (Chinese Cabbage), Mushrooms and Tofu Skin are all fine accompaniments to other dishes. By themselves, they're a tad plain, but with a small dab of their dipping sauce (made from Fermented Tofu and Clams), it brings an interesting, funky facet to each bite. Their Shao Rou (Roasted Pork) and Pork Skin don't work as well steeping in this broth. The Pork Skin has become completely soggy and slightly chewy, and the Shao Rou (Roasted Pork) is stringy and not very tender.

One of my favorite dishes to order (if I see it on a menu) is the rustic, homely Zheng Rou Bing (Steamed Ground Pork dish). Chef Li offers up 3 types of this dish, and we decide on their Dah Ao Zheng Rou Bing (Steamed Ground Pork).

When the dish first arrives, I'm slightly horrified by the massive amount of Dark Soy Sauce covering the whole meat patty. That is, until I take a bite and am happily surprised that the "Soy Sauce" tastes nothing like the usual kinds: It's very light, barely salty and more sweet and woodsy than anything. I inquire about the sauce, and our server states that this is Chef Li's *Homemade* Soy Sauce(!). Chef Li confirms this fact, showing us the mash that he makes his Soy Sauce out of. Wow.

He goes on to explain that he doesn't care for MSG or mass-produced sauces, and prefers to make his own sauces for all his dishes. Looking around the wide-open kitchen, I spy no bottles of Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce or the "Red Rooster" Sriracha Hot Sauce. :) Over the past 8 visits, I can say that there's generally a good lightness to his sauces, and that they don't taste like they have a standard Oyster Sauce or Soy Sauce used as a base. It's pretty impressive.

The actual Steamed Ground Marinated Pork dish is competently done: The Ground Pork isn't overly fatty (it's a bit too lean for my tastes), but the chunks of Squid and Water Chestnut, along with the lightly salty-sweet Homemade Soy Sauce help to elevate this dish above the norm. It's not the best Zheng Rou Bing I've had, but it's a pretty decent version.

On another visit, I notice Bon Marche has displayed some fresh Ku Gua (Bitter Melon) they bought for the day, so we order their Doh Shi Ku Gua (Sauteed Bitter Melon with Fermented Black Beans).

The Bitter Melon is sufficiently, charmingly bitter and fresh, with some great notes of Garlic and the pungent earthiness of the Fermented Black Beans.

Their Ju Wu Wei Jin Mi Yah (Baked Tasted Duck) represents the greatest ambitions and weaknesses at Bon Marche Bistro all in one dish.

For a non-Chinese BBQ specialist (or high volume HK / Cantonese Seafood Restaurant), it's commendable that they offer a Roasted Duck that they take the time to cook from scratch. But the first weakness is apparent when it arrives at the table: Lack of presentation. It's a hole-in-the-wall, small family operation, but the complete lack of presentation (oil and sauce stains and drippings all over the plate) seem excessive, and could be a turn off for some. It adds to the "you're eating dinner in a casual, home setting"-type feel, but it's a bit messier than what one might expect.

Besides that is the taste: On my first visit, the Duck has a very clear, sharp poultry flavor coming through with every bite. It's fresh and tastes like something made just for our table. But on subsequent visits, the Duck tastes old, like it was a leftover (unsold) Duck from the previous day, but reheated. And therein lies the frustration: There are good intentions here (Homemade Soy Sauce topping this dish, his own interpretation of a Roasted Duck), but it's countered by ugly parameters as well (selling / reheating unsold product). It's like American BBQ at average places: At what point do you throw out the unsold rack of Ribs and start a brand-new batch, versus keeping it slowly heated / reheated for the next day, etc.? So, when you're lucky enough to get a batch of the Duck cooked that day, it's a great dish with a nice balance of flavors. Else, you're stuck with something that's not as good as it could be.

But Chef Li rebounds beautifully with the Wei Toh Chwei Pi Nan Zai (Roast Belly Pork).

I gently pick up a piece of the Pork Belly and take a bite: A sexy crunch from the crispy Pork Skin gives way to fresh, vibrant Roasted Pork. The textural contrast between the fatty, gelatinous Pork Fat, lean, moist Pork Meat, and the crisped crunchy Pork Skin is spectacular. :) If there's one small complaint, it's that the "half-life" of the Pork Skin's crunch is pretty short: Within about ~10 - 15 minutes after the dish arrived, the remaining pieces of the Roasted Pork had already lost the beautiful crunch. A great dish otherwise. :)

On my 3rd visit, my guest is feeling like a good chicken dish, so we try their Kejia Shwei Jing Ji (Crystal Chicken).

It's a straightforward creation, a stewed Chicken with Garlic, Ginger and Green Onions in a light Broth. Like the Duck, this dish tastes like it was made a previous day and reheated, with the Chicken having a dull, mustiness to it.

Wanting to give their Pahn Tsai another try, I order a Small Bowl (2 Person), topped with Mian Jiang Tsong Suan Chao Yang Rou (Stir Fried Mutton with Onions).

The Mutton is thickly sliced, meaty and nicely seasoned. But there's too much gristle and it's overcooked, leading to some unnecessary toughness. And since we ordered this dish as a "topping" to the Pahn Tsai bowl, the sauce from the Mutton seeped down into the rest of the lightly stewed ingredients, adding more flavor to the Yoh Tsai vegetables, Tofu Skin, Meatballs and other items.

A plate of Suan Rohng Bai Tsai (Chinese Cabbage Sauteed with Garlic) arrives with the Chinese Cabbage tasting fresh, bright with a well-balanced slight touch of nice bitterness along with the pinch of Salt and sauteed Garlic.

Next up, we try some of their fresh seafood. On this day, Chef Li has bought a few Yellow Croakers, and we try it prepared as their Kejia Hsien Tsai Zheng Hsien Yu (Steamed Fish with Preserved Vegetables).

The Yellow Croaker tastes fresh and is cooked just right, still very moist while maintaining a delicate balance of softness, yet still having some good structure. Like earlier, the dark colored sauce belies the very light salt levels, being more sweet and savory than salty. And tying it all together is the topping of their Mei Gahn Tsai (Preserved Vegetables) with little chunks of Pork Belly. The Yellow Croaker we had wasn't a particularly bony fish (very few bones), but there are some, so those that don't want to deal with this hassle should steer clear of this dish.

Another standout dish is their Zhi Ma Shi Yoh Huang Zha Zi Ji (Deep Fried Spring Chicken with Supreme Soy Sauce).

Unlike the previous poultry dishes, when we ordered this the first time, Chef Li begins chopping up and segmenting a whole raw Chicken, and cooks it to order. The Chicken has a wonderful crisped skin and a real brightness about it; there were a couple pieces of white meat that were a touch overcooked, but otherwise it was generally very moist. Add in their Homemade Soy Sauce, and it's one of the best items on the menu.

However, on a later visit, when I ordered it again, I noticed that it wasn't a raw Chicken that was being prepped but one that was already partially cooked. This time, the Chicken had the funk of being ~1-2 days old and lacked the vibrancy of the first time I ordered the dish.

On another visit, their Mi Jio Ji (Rice Wine Chicken) suffers the same problem as their Crystal Chicken and Duck.

Tasting about 1-2 days old, the boiled Chicken is essentially their Crystal Chicken (with Garlic, Green Onions and Ginger) but with Rice Wine added as well. And unfortunately, the Chicken isn't given enough time to stew with the Rice Wine, so there are some Rice Wine notes, but it's not enough.

But their Mei Tsai Ko Rou (Pork with Preserved Vegetables) helps to rectify things quickly.

The thick slices of Pork Belly are a little on the firmer side (but still quite tender), with a delicious decadence with every bite. The Mei Tsai adds a nice touch of sweetness to finish things off. Excellent. :)

Chef Li's Shao Hsien Yo Yu (Grilled Fresh Squid) is a textbook example of Grilled Squid.

Mostly tender, lightly chewy pieces of Squid (with a few edge pieces being overcooked) are finished off with a nice char and housemade sweet sauce.

On another visit, my guests are craving some Dim Sum, so we order their Shao Mai (listed as "Shu Mai"), which are little Steamed Pork Dumplings.

They usually have chunks of Shrimp as well, but Chef Li's version is Marinated Ground Pork with Water Chestnut and Mushrooms. The Dumpling skin is a little thicker than the usual Dim Sum versions of Shao Mai, but overall it's a good alternate interpretation, and something you can order for dinner if you want.

Their Nuo Mi Ji (Chicken with Sticky Rice) is another surprisingly good Dim Sum dish from Chef Li.

The Sticky Rice is cooked just right, with the chunks of Chicken and Mushrooms really shining throughout, along with the fragrant Lotus Leaf. Some Dim Sum restaurants drown this dish with too much sauce, but not so here.

They're displaying some fresh Tsai Hsin (Choy Sum) variety of the Chinese Cabbage, so we order it sauteed with Garlic, Suan Rohng Tsai Hsin. It's a simple, fibrous vegetable and sauteed to the right level of softness; a good balance to the meal.

Another featured item on Bon Marche's menu is their variety of Rice in Clay Hot Pots. Being a huge Lamb fan, I order their Chao Suan Pian Tsong Yang Rou La Chahng Sa Guo Fahn (Mutton and Assorted Chinese Sausage with Rice in Clay Pot).

The Clay Pot Rice comes out smelling so fragrant, and taking a bite reveals this happy mouthful of goodness: The aromatic juices from the Mutton slices and La Chahng slices pervade every bit of the Clay Pot Rice. The Mutton is too lean, but the fragrant Rice and Sausage makes up for it.

During my 4th visit, I notice a sign and ask one of my SGV Hounds about it. Our server mentions that it's their new special dish, Kejia Yen Ju Ji (Salt-Baked Chicken). (Note: This requires a 2 Hour advanced notice, so they can prepare and cook it to order.)

Chef Li takes a whole Chicken, wrapped in parchment and covers it with Salt and bakes it until ready. The resultant flavor and cooking method creates a super tender Chicken, with most of the meat having a nice flavor permeating throughout. There's a bit of the breast meat that's a touch dry, but most of the Chicken is just succulent and mouth-wateringly delicious. :)

The accompanying Sa Jiang Ginger Sauce really adds the perfect complement to the Salt-Baked Chicken pieces, especially with some hot, Steamed Rice. :) Outstanding!

Their Hsia Jiao (Shrimp Dumpling) is another example of Chef Li's background affecting his cooking in interesting ways. The nice, meaty chunks of Shrimp are accented with an interesting herbal note with every bite, something different from the usual Dim Sum offering.

From their "Sak Kong" Military Camp Cuisine portion of the menu, we order the Ju Ga Li Yue Keh Shao Nio Rou (Baked Curry Roast Beef). This menu was inspired by the times when Chef Li was a young boy, playing soccer matches with the military servicemen stationed at this Sak Kong Military Camp. He was invited to join the servicemen for various meals before or after the soccer matches.

The Curry recipe also reflects the influence of Chef Li's time in England, as he creates a more British-style Curry than the usual Chinese Curry. It's quite redolent with just the right amount of spiciness. And it's thankfully not very salty either.

Bon Marche's Shi Gahng Ji Chao Fahn ("Sak Kong" Chicken Fried Rice) is another interesting spin on a classic.

Chef Li adds in Apples(!), Bell Peppers, Onions and Green Onions to usual mix and there's some solid wok technique, resulting in a very clean, non-greasy version of Fried Rice.

The next dish to arrive is their Yu Toh Ko Rou (Pork with Taro Root) which doesn't fare as well.

Unlike the Pork Belly with Preserved Vegetables, on this visit, the Pork is too dry and undercooked (still very firm and a bit chunky). The Sauteed Taro is delicious and adds that unmistakable flowery pungency, but the firm, dry Pork brings the dish down.

They have some fresh Water Morning Glory today, so we order a simple Suan Rohng Kohng Hsin Tsai (Sauteed Water Morning Glory with Garlic). The leaves and stems are still very fresh, and it's one of the favorites amongst my SGV Hounds, with its mild green flavor.

Their Jia Hsiang Zheng Rou Bing (Countryside Style Steamed Ground Pork) features a version of the classic Steamed Ground Pork dish I've never had before: Chef Li tops the Marinated Ground Pork with 2 Chicken Eggs and chunks of Stewed Pork Belly, along with a Sweet Soy Sauce. It's a bit too sweet, and the lean Pork used here makes the dish too chunky and dense.

I found myself back at Bon Marche Bistro when we had a birthday to celebrate with some friends and someone was craving some nice Chinese seafood. I suggested Bon Marche with their "Main Dish Designed By You" section of the menu. For this section, the menu explains that you can ask the Chef to try and make whatever dish you want, and he can see if he can make that dish or not (and provide a price ahead of time). With that option, one of our SGV Hounds called ahead and ordered a few dishes to try.

Chef Li's Yu Chi Tahng (Shark Fin Soup) is quite a surprise.

Since Shark Fin is basically tasteless, it's all about the Broth that accompanies the Shark Fin (and the quality and texture of the Shark Fin itself, of course). Chef Li uses an entire Chicken to help create the Broth and it's wonderful. It's so pure, deep and complex, and puts to shame the shockingly bad versions of Shark Fin I had at Elite Restaurant (which is supposed to be so much more "polished / high class"). And the Shark Fin itself is of very good quality, with great texture. It doesn't top the Shark Fin specialists I've tried in Hong Kong and Taipei, but it's better than local heavy hitters Elite and Ocean Star.

Continuing on, we're presented with Ga Li Luo Buo Gao (Sauteed Curry Radish Cakes).

While I normally enjoy the usual Grilled Radish Cakes found at Dim Sum restaurants, Bon Marche's version is quite nice, as a break from the usual offerings: The Luo Buo Gao itself is silky soft in the center, and forms a nice thin crust from the English-style Curry covering the outside. It's spicy and earthy all at once.

Next up is Chef Li's Bao Yu Hai Shen (Abalone and Sea Cucumber).

For those not used to Sea Cucumber, the dish may look daunting, but any worries are quickly erased after one bite. The Abalone is simply awesome! It's tender yet still has a good meatiness to it, with a little kiss of the ocean. One of the best Abalone dishes I've had outside of Japanese cuisine in the past year.

And the Sea Cucumber is impressively flavorful (it usually has almost no flavor), tender and gelatinous, infused with Chef Li's housemade Sauce, which again favors a touch of the sweet side of the spectrum (in a good way), with little emphasis on saltiness.

Their Shi Zhi Zheng Feng Zhua (Steamed Chicken Feet) taste very fresh, with a light salty-sweet flavor, but the Feng Zhua itself isn't cooked long enough. It's a tad too tough.

We finish up the meal with their Dai Zi Ku Gua (Scallops Sauteed with Bitter Melon). While the Bitter Melon exhibits a lovely bitterness, the Scallops fall short, being waterlogged and slightly gummy.

One bizarre note: On Friday and Saturday nights, from 9 p.m. and on, for some strange reason Bon Marche features Karaoke *from the main server (and wife of Chef Li)*(!). It has to be the weirdest restaurant experience I've ever had: One minute we're eating dinner, the next minute some strange Hong Kong Karaoke Music Video starts playing on the 2 TV screens and the main server is singing and busing tables at the same time! (O_o) Wow. I suppose it adds to the "at home" feel of the restaurant, but it's a bit disturbing and makes dinner conversation impossible.

Service is pretty standard here, with usually 1 server (the wife of the Chef) acting as busboy and cashier as well. During some visits, there was 1 other waitress. You just wave to get their attention for whatever you need. Prices range from $1.38 to $23.90 (for a Whole Duck), with most dishes in the ~$7 range.

Bon Marche Bistro is a frustrating example of great intentions marred by inconsistency interspersed with flashes of brilliance. It's understandable that Bon Marche (and many other restaurants around town) don't want to waste food as long as it's still edible and relatively fresh, but in the cases of their most expensive / best regular menu items, like their Baked Tasted Duck and Rice Wine Chicken, serving older / reheated versions mars the potential greatness of these dishes (again, when I had their Duck during my first visit, it was wonderful and so fresh, then on another visit it tasted like it was an unsold Duck from the previous day).

There are still some good highlights, like their Yen Ju Ji (Salt-Baked Chicken), made to order, Roasted Pork Belly, Pork with Preserved Vegetables and special order items like their Abalone and Sea Cucumber, and the fact that you can satisfy your Dim Sum craving for dinner here is another plus. With some great intentions (like Chef Li making his own Soy Sauce for the restaurant), you're pulling for Bon Marche Bistro to overcome their consistency problems, and in a few dishes, a better level of execution, but until then, it remains a decent stopover if you're in the area.

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

Bon Marche Bistro ("B" Ge Wei Chun Tsai)
331 W. Garvey Ave., #D
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Tel: (626) 569-0072

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch] 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Darrell said...

I'm curious if the sea cucumber and abalone were fresh or if the abalone was canned? Or the sea cucumber was from dried?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darrell,

The Sea Cucumber tasted fresh. The Abalone tasted fresh as well. I've tried a variety of canned Abalone before, and this tasted better than the multiple grades I've tried. Thanks.

J.A. Pak said...

Finally got the chance to try Bon Mar Che tonight, and I have to say, it's probably the friendliest place I've ever eaten at. Even though it was Monday and the place almost empty, karaoke started around nine with two very enthusiastic singers, making the atmosphere very convivial.

Our waiter was very chatty and explained that many of the meat and poultry dishes are partially cooked ahead of time and kept for a few days in the fridge. I suppose that accounts for the inconsistency in freshness. He also encouraged us to bring our own fresh seafood with us the next time we came because the chef is more than happy to prepare whatever a customer brings in.

Also, the waiter warned us that the chef and his wife are off to Manchester, England for five days starting April 25, so the restaurant will be closed that week.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi J.A.,

Thanks for the detailed report back! :) That's interesting to hear (and that explains it) that they are preparing some dishes ahead of time, sigh. It's understandable to save time / money, but unfortunate for when we're searching for the freshest dishes at a restaurant.

J.A. Pak said...

I think that's a real problem with Chinese restaurants because they all seem obliged to have large menus. You just never know what's fresh that day. I've been to two Chinese restaurants in the past few weeks where one dish was fresh and wonderful and another really stale (one seaweed dish was spoiled). Since I cook a lot, I can usually determine how long something has been in the fridge, and there are things people are serving that I wouldn't serve at home (and I'm pretty frugal).

Exile Kiss said...

Hi J.A.,

Yah, I agree. It's very unfortunate. One restaurant you might consider (I just reviewed it a few weeks ago) is Yu Garden, for Shanghai Cuisine. They make all their dishes fresh for the day, and even long-stewing dishes are never kept to reheat the next day (an impressive feat).

J.A. Pak said...

That one sounds like a definite 'must try'. Thank you!

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