Follow me up to Morristown, where good friends Humphrey and Angela Chang recently hosted me and fellow food-writer Pat Tanner at lunch. They’ve become friends with the personable John Lin, owner of Lin’s Palace, right across from the Morristown Hyatt, for 31 years and counting. To the average Western customer this might appear to be a typical Chinese-American restaurant (thus some of the more average Yelp reviews). But for those in the know, there is a separate “Taiwanese Style” menu of more authentic dishes. It’s in English, too, and you know that’s the menu I’ll urge you to order from. Always ask, in any Chinese restaurant, if there’s a separate menu with more “traditional” dishes.
And here’s something else most people entering Lin’s Palace might not know: a short distance away is Mr. Lin’s real palace – an extensive trellised garden in the backyard of his home. There he grows many of the squash, bitter melons, tomatoes, flat beans, and other produce for his restaurant. It’s all pesticide and chemical free, too, he proudly says, because he has no problem with pests. I credit that to the good air circulation trellis growing promotes, it’s like a maze of climbing vines with some shorter plants like eggplants and herbs closer to the ground. He grows so many kinds of squash, and I loved seeing a large wintermelon (lower right) trussed up to keep it from falling off the vine!
We met up at the restaurant and piled into Mr. Lin’s car to visit the garden. After we ogled all those treasures (and were given some tomatoes and bitter melon to take home) we returned to the restaurant and sat down to lunch. Course after course, we enjoyed it all, and most of it is pictured in the photo gallery below.
We started with an impressive platter of fresh lobster salad. The lobster was generous and sweet, lightly dressed, atop a bed of cucumber. Maybe Mr. Lin lived in New England in a previous life? He’s definitely got lobster salad down!
Mr. Lin is especially known for his house-made Chinese sausage, so popular that he wholesales some to a few other restaurants. Chinese sausage is slighty sweet, and this was delicious. As were the spring rolls packed with shrimp, and a chicken roll wrapped in tofu skin and filled with chicken, pork, and a touch of fish paste. Fantastic! That platter was completed with deep green seaweed strips tied into knots. Next up was a bowl of pungent bitter melon stir-fried with anchovy and black bean sauce. The crazy surface of bitter melon was intact here, so it looked sort of like cockscomb. Can you see that bumpy exterior that looks sort of like melted wax in the photo to the right, here?
Next, a beautiful whole sea bass, steamed with scallion and ginger, arrived at the table. Mr. Lin quickly filleted it, serving each of us a portion of the lovely, tender, fish. It suddenly occurred to me that I could video tape that, so did so. Apologies for the amateurish quality and for the loud voices (mine’s the worst, and very masculine!), which I could not figure out how to omit.
The fish was followed by another pungent dish, preserved fish roe on celery. That was like Italian bottarga, strong and salty. Then came briefly broiled oysters on the half shell with pesto. Just like the fish, they were pristinely fresh, as Mr. Lin goes to the Fulton Fish Market himself for seafood, at the crack of dawn. (He was also pouring good Cabernet through this meal, but I abstained, I just can’t drink at lunch and stay alert.)
A lovely soup of Chinese silk squash and clams followed the oysters, and then a dish of egg fried rice with sesame oil. The rice, once you broke into it, was amazingly light and fluffy, with very finely minced egg and the teensiest slivers of browned garlic (and maybe onion or shallot?), the most refined fried rice I’ve ever seen. By then Mr. Lin’s wife, Alice, had joined us at the table from the kitchen where she’d been cooking these great dishes. Cousins of his were also in the restaurant, and I must say, this is one friendly family!
At the end, we enjoyed a dual dessert – slices of crisp Asian pear that the Chang’s had brought up with them, and a plate of Mr. Lin’s garden tomatoes sprinkled with an entirely new spice to me – powdered dried plum. This is known as Li Hing Mui powder, and its flavor – a little sweet, a little sour, a little salty – was just amazing with the tomatoes! I will look for this the next time I go to an Asian market, and also found several versions on Amazon. It’s made from the skin of dried, pickled plums (which often contain some food coloring and even Aspartame, sigh). It’s also quite popular in Hawaii!
Now I am exploring recipes for the bitter melon I brought home. Rather than stir-fry, I am leaning towards slicing and roasting it after a soak in cold water to leach out some of the bitterness (easier than par boiling). Much to my surprise there is a National Bitter Melon Council in the U.S. Who knew? It’s also supposed to have some good medicinal qualities, as is the case with so much food in Asia and Southeast Asia.
Big thanks to Angela and Humphrey Chang, and to John Lin and his family!