Michele’s Missives: Dayenu

Repost from 2012

Tonight we planned to have a quiet dinner at home. Marian and Ted went shopping for vegetables to make soup and left the crock pot running while we went out for massage and a weekly expat gathering. On our way to the coffee shop where it was being held, we bumped into the head chef of Pretty Thai, one of the best restaurants in the city, and he said “Marian! Long time no see! What are you doing for dinner?”

Three hours later…

The path to the front door of the restaurant, although stable enough, crosses a small fountain and appears to be floating on water. Into the restaurant, one is met by elegant Thai inspired furniture and decorations with the tables generally nestled into alcoves screened by sheer curtains. Along one wall there is a padded bench strewn with colorful cushions. The heavy wooden furniture is inset with rattan and already laid out with simple white square china plates with a fancy set of silverware and a pair of chopsticks.

It’s hard to say whether or not the service is exceptionally good or not since we are here as guests of our daughter who is here as the guest of the chef. Service in China generally does not meet the expectations of westerners, and we’ve been told that service in Hainan generally does not meet the expectations of Mainland Chinese. As we were getting out of the taxi, an employee on her way off shift saw us and ran back in to tell the hostess that “the chef’s friends had arrived.”

No menu was ever brought to our table, just food.

The first course was a delicate curried duck with eggplant and coconut studded with cherry tomatoes and grapes. A dish of garlic bread (to sop up the curry sauce) accompanied it.

This was followed by a light fish broth with pieces of broccoli and mushroom. The mystery item in the broth was slightly chewy and had a flavor none of us could quite place until the chef came out and asked us what we thought of the fish stomach wrapped balls of something that he didn’t know the English word for.
Our third course was homemade tofu in a sweet orange chili sauce. Many Americans who only know tofu as such bastardizations like “tofurkey” or “veggie burgers” are under the misapprehension that tofu doesn’t taste good. I’d like to pity them but instead I just think “all the more for me”. This tofu had a consistency and mouth feel similar to egg custard or flan. Instead of being sweet or butterscotch flavored, however, it was orange chili sauce flavored.

As the Jews say on Passover “dayenu” — it would have been enough.

If you had only brought us out of Egypt but had not given us garlic bread with our duck curry — dayenu.
If you had only fed us manna in the desert but had not given us fish soup to drink — dayenu.
If you had only led us for forty years of wandering but had not given us orange chili tofu — dayenu.
If you had only brought us to the Promised Land but had not given us prawns with garlic smothered in pumpkin sauce and covered with melted cheese — dayenu.

The prawns were accompanied by mounds of fragrant Thai rice first cooked in fish broth then fried with Thai peppers and slivers of green onion.


While we were still contemplating the rice with the dilemma to eat or not to eat because not eating was not eating and eating any more was already too much, the chef came out with delicate tartlets filled half and half with purple sweet potato and yam puree then garnished with chocolate sauce.

Finally they cleared the table. (Dayenu.)

But that was just so they would have room to put down a plate of sliced watermelon and other tropical fruits.

We sat around and talked for another hour or so before eventually realizing that the chef, despite having made a cryptic comment about possibly having something to discuss with Marian, wasn’t going to come back. She got up and asked about paying the bill only to come back with the information that there was no bill to pay. I have a feeling that this restaurant is going to be on the pricey side judging by the quality of the food and the quality of the decor, but I am equally certain from the food that we ate that it’s going to be worth every fen.

This is one of the better meals that we’ve had not only since our arrival in China but also over the last year.

Marian would like to add that she thinks one of the reasons the meal was as amazing as it was is because we were unencumbered by people ordering the most expensive, the most impressive, or the dishes they were most familiar with. Instead the chef got to highlight what he thought was special.