Still, just a few weeks earlier, I was sitting across the table at another Asian restaurant, accompanied by a friend playing carelessly with his own chopsticks. Mid-sentence, one of the pointed missiles slipped his grip, beaned me in the forehead and, most amazing of all, flipped right back into his hand. Sticks happen.
Operating an Asian restaurant is a tough business. Personal-injury potential aside, it's increasingly difficult to generate excitement among customers confused over a recent glut of this type of cuisine in the Valley. Did you know you can also get sushi at the Italian restaurant Mulberry Street in Phoenix? Or at Tombstone Brewing in Scottsdale? Asian is hot, even when it's not easily categorized.
George and Son's, which entered the market last fall, doesn't serve sushi. Primarily Chinese, the menu also borrows from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore, however. In another stretch, it features an ambitious wine list for a typical Asian eatery, including a $100 bottle of Meritage Cain 5, a round and smooth red from Napa, California. The restaurant's working to cover all the bases, and luckily for this chopsticks-challenged neighborhood, it does so in fine style.
George and Son's, while sounding more like an English pub, is the creation of George Yang. Harry, our personable server on each visit, isn't one of the sons, but if Yang is smart, he'll write this young gent into the will. Harry's that good.
Harry's standing very close to our table, ready to pour a shrimp dish over a sizzling plate of rice. He pauses in mid-pour, grins and steps back. He's got insurance, he says, and good thing -- the pile of crustaceans and vegetables hits the plate with a crackling splat, popping and hissing over the dried grains with a snap, crackle and pop. When he plates the dish, firm stalks of broccoli, carrot, baby corn, snow peas, zucchini, mushrooms and chubby shrimp rest in a light, vaguely sweet brown sauce that wisely lurks in the background, not overpowering its star ingredients.
Yang should incorporate his recipes into his will, too. They're also that good. While many familiar Chinese choices are offered, without exception, they've been gently treated here, with clean, clever sauces that rely on subtle spicing instead of sugars or thickeners. These are the more authentic preparations, not the cloying, wallpaper-paste varieties introduced to America in the '50s.
Consider the humble spring roll. While so many common egg rolls are taquito-like torpedoes of bean sprouts and meager meat, the models served here are addictive. A single roll, cut in half for easier consumption, is enough to satisfy a diner. The trick is in the wrapper, so lightly slicked with grease, crispy and flaky that it's reminiscent of phyllo. Juiciness comes from a thick stuffing of silver thread noodles and chopped carrot, and in a nod to Vietnamese presentation, rolls come with lettuce leaves, to be wrapped and dipped in a thin, spicy chile sauce. Potstickers are first-rate, too. Four bundles come stuffed with lots of ground pork and scallion, expertly browned and moistened in little bowls of scallion soy sauce.
P.F. Chang's first introduced chicken lettuce wraps to mainstream Chinese dining in 1993, and now, the appetizers are on restaurant menus everywhere -- even non-Asian joints. The more the merrier -- there's something really refreshing about the contrast of fresh, cold curls of the crisp iceberg's inner leaves against mounds of chopped water chestnuts, mushrooms and minced chicken breast. At George and Son's, portions are wrapped up like little burritos and dunked in scallion soy.
Eight mollusks make up the Asian mussels appetizer, and fans of strong-tasting shellfish will appreciate the green lip variety, steamed and served in open shells, topped with leaves of fresh basil. The mussels are good but salty; opaque broth braced with ginger root and lemongrass is terrific. If there were bread on the table, we'd have soaked up every last drop of juice.
Appetizers include crab puffs pudgy with meat and cream cheese; grilled chicken sticks in Thai curry with peanut sauce; and chile-spiked crackling calamari. The biggest surprise, and the dish not to miss, though, is George's seafood pocket. Yang is so proud of this invention, in fact, that as a bonus for ordering it, guests can expect a personal visit and perhaps a friendly pat on the shoulder. The pride is justified. Think potato pancake meets the Orient for this ultra-crisp folded-over pancake studded with scallion and stuffed with finely chopped shrimp, crab, scallops, onion and green pepper. It's excellent, moist, meaty and perfectly balanced, dipped in light soy bobbing with scallion. Here's a perfect example of culinary precision and why it matters so much -- if the pancake were soggy, or the seafood chunked instead of chopped, the dish would be awful.
I'm a rabid soup fan, and George and Son's won ton bowl is a winner. Dainty circles of shallots, slabs of rose-edged barbecue pork and mid-size won tons are tasty, but leaves of fresh spinach and an airy, miso-ish chicken broth make for classy cuisine. We order the bowl for two, but Harry portions it into three bowls so my second companion, not sure if she'll like it, can sample, too. Hopefully there are enough won tons to go around, he smiles; if not, he'll raid the kitchen. A serving for two brings a full cup for each of us, and my friend slurps every drop.
Fortunately, there are only two of us the night I order tom yum soup. This Thai soup is hedonism in liquid form, floating with whole leaves and stalks of fresh basil. The woody, earthy tones of lemongrass and ginger and the acids released by chunks of soft, sweet tomato with a squeeze of lemon give off a fairly unpleasant smell. Get past your nose and into your mouth for a pungent, tangy broth lush with fresh mushrooms, bay shrimp and chicken breast. I do wish the kitchen would pick out some of the lemongrass debris -- the shards get stuck in our throats.
There's more spice to be found in Gramma's salad -- listed as "our own creation" but found on menus all over town from Sesame Inn to Tsing-Wa in Tempe. Patent pending, I care not, as long as I can enjoy the finely shredded cabbage with my choice of pork (or chicken) in red wine vinegar, soy and lots of red pepper.
At this point, it would be fine if I never made it past the appetizers, soups and salads. George and Son's would be a good, one-person lunch or dinner choice, cuddled up at the small bar in the entry, sipping on the restaurant's signature Whispering Peak Chardonnay, a Sonoma, California selection. The atmosphere's certainly welcoming, with mustard-toned walls, gray vinyl booths, suspended lights and boxy wood ceiling accents. Jazzy Asian symbol art is a focal point, with the eatery space sectioned into cozy nooks around a centerpiece dining room.
But Harry has returned, freshening the mustard-colored plates on our white table cloth, replacing a bright purple napkin that's fallen to the coppery orange concrete floor, placing our entrees in the center of the table.
Mandalay Nungyi noodles are pretty, with a generous tumble of white onion curls, cilantro leaves and shredded chicken. Enjoy the view now, though, Harry says -- he brings the dish out looking good, then messes it all up. Sure enough, he digs in with large spoons, tossing the mixture into a monochromatic burnt orange. The very firm, udon-size rice noodles don't need anything other than their mild, slightly gritty Burmese curry seasoning zipped with lemon, bare sauce and little chunks of roasted garlic.
Singapore chow fun is similar, thanks to the dry spice rub on the noodles. But here, the pasta is grasslike chopped rice vermicelli; the toppings grilled onion, green pepper, scrambled egg, red pepper, bay shrimp, shredded pork and bean sprouts.
Pork with eggplant features Asian eggplant, soft and mild in the middle, slightly bitter at the skin; and lots of red chile and scallions in a garlic ginger sauce are robust counterparts to full-flavored pig bits. It's all the better paired with fluffy, large-grain white rice.
The only letdown -- multiple highlights considered -- is Mongolian beef. I never thought I'd fault a Chinese restaurant for too little sauce, but this half-plate of dried rice vermicelli (picture Styrofoam frizzles) and half-plate of quality beef is just too dry.
Steamed salmon needs nothing more, however. It could do just as well with less, actually; the dining public would never know what it was missing if the massive portions were reined in. Yang stops by my table, stares at my barely nibbled plate and notes (with a truly playful grin) that Harry must have screwed up again. Yang has caught me licking -- straight from my spoon -- the salty clean black bean sauce, puréed to viscous liquid, spiffed with garlic and topped with scallions. But no, it's simply too much fish to finish, I insist, the portion weighing in easily at two pounds (no exaggeration) of moist, meaty fillet.
We'll take it to go, I say, and Yang says no. We've just bought him dinner, he teases, since it's his favorite, and he lays claim to leftovers. Then Harry appears, marveling at the fact we're happy, announcing that for some reason, the kitchen tonight got things right.
This is a comedy team of confidence. They know they've got something special, just a little different, and more than a little bit fun. George & Son's is worth risking brain damage from flying chopsticks.