We ring in the new year-4693- with a traditional Chinese feast.

WHILE WESTERN CULTURE TRADI-tionally greets the new year with drinking and midnight revelry, the Chinese prefer to feast their way into the new year with a 15-day celebration featuring a multicourse banquet.

You needn’t head for China, or even a city with a Chinatown, to take part in the most important holiday in Chinese culture. The celebration of The Year of the Pig, 4693, begins January 30 and lasts through February 14. During that time, a number of local Chinese restaurants will set up a banquet for you, complete with all the traditional fare.

We decided it might be fun to tag along with a group of Dallasites at a traditional banquet. We chose the May Dragon in Addison because the owner, Joe Chow, likes to honor the Chinese New Year in a big way, with authentic dishes and even traditional lion dancers.

Although the May Dragon will serve a Chinese New Year banquet to as lew as two, what you really need for an authentic celebration is a crowd of people-six, eight, or even more. Here’s the fun part: they don’t have to be friends. Banqueting Chinese-style is a great way to get to know people better.

Who better to invite than Grant Swartzwelder, founder and past president of Dallas World Salute Young Professionals League and treasurer of the Dallas Commission on International Affairs.

At Grant’s suggestion, we also invited Keli Flynn, an investment banker in her 20s who recently spent several weeks visiting China.

Grant’s colleague and his new bride were the next recruits: Tim and Kim Clow. Just married in October, the Clows now live in the Park Cities. Tim is an attorney specializing in country club and resort properties, while Kim is a mortgage broker.

Dolores (“Lolis”) Longoria and Catalina Valdez Scott also agreed to join our group of revelers, Lolis works for the city of Dallas, as assistant director of international marketing. Among other tasks, she’s in charge of the sister cities program. Catalina is president of the Federation of Mexican Organizations, which sponsors the Mexican Independence and Cinco de Mayo celebration.

What to wear to Chinese New Year? Not black. Something new is traditional, signifying a new beginning. 1 wore my new red blouse because Chinese regard that color as lucky.

After gathering in the May Dragon’s sleek bar, we took our places around a traditional round table with a big revolving lazy Susan in the center, Our waiter, Thomas Wong, a Malaysian who came here seven years ago from Kuala Lumpur, explained that the feast is very symbolic, each dish laden with meaning involving wealth and good fortune.

We began with the Five Happiness hors d’oeuvre platter.

The first sampling, tiny, pan-fried dumplings filled with minced pork and Chinese cabbage seasoned with cilantro, green onion, soy, and ginger root, came with a spicy dipping broth fragrant with garlic, hot chili, and toasted sesame oil. Because they look like golden nuggets, the dumplings symbolize wealth.

Next were big, juicy, prawn-sized “Five-Flavor Shrimp,” marinated in tomato juice with sugar, vinegar, garlic, soy, and pepper for a taste that was at once sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and hot. Five is considered a lucky number.

The next dish, a part of every traditional Chinese banquet, didn’t evoke much enthusiasm: Pickled jellyfish paired with Chinese cucumber was “interesting,” said Lolis, politely. I took that to mean ” sour, salty rubber bands.”

But everyone loved the next dish: golden sea scallops. Restaurateur Joe Chow explained that big sea scallops are coated with egg white and crumbs, then deep fat fried to a color symbolic of golden nuggets. The scallops are served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce made with sweet apricot and peach puree, vinegar, ginger root, orange, and lemon juice.

Next was a traditional Chinese sausage, sliced into “coins,” which it symbolized. Unlike Western versions, the sausage is made with very lean pork. It’s seasoned with Oriental five-spice powder (anise, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, star seed) and moistened with Chinese sweet wine. Like air-dried Italian salami, Chinese sausage can keep for a long time; it therefore symbolizes continued abundance.

Next was shark fin soup, one of the most expensive delicacies in Chinese cuisine (imported from China, dried shark fin is about $150 a pound). Serving it is considered an act of great generosity. Shark’s fin itself is relatively tasteless, thank goodness, because it’s considered bad manners not to finish it. Simmered in flavorful chicken broth with snow peas, Chinese wood ear mushrooms, and bamboo slices, it tends to fall into shreds. We dutifully emptied our bowls, but Kim said she would have preferred the May Dragon’s legendary hot and sour soup.

The entrees began with Joe Chow’s award-winning Sesame Chicken, generally the most asked-for dish on the May Dragon menu. Boneless chicken legs are cut in chunks, coated with egg white and cornstarch, sautéed crisp, then sauced with a tangy sweet-sour sauce and topped with toasted sesame seeds. Everybody loved it.

The most spectacular-looking entree was next, the Seafood Phoenix: Fresh fish and seafood-scallops, large shrimp, crab-meat-arranged in the shape of a Phoenix bird, symbolic of the eight female virtues. Joe Chow later reported that these virtues included good cooking skills, good sewing skills, goodheartedness, good looks, honesty, and the ability to be a good caretaker to a husband, his parents, and her own children.

The next dish, “twin lobsters with a pearl,” symbolised fertility (the pearl in this case was really a peeled radish). Then came Lo Mein: Chinese noodles stir fried with shrimp, pork, chicken, bean sprouts, and sliced green onion. The long noodles represent long, happy life…and a challenge for chopsticks.

Crispy whole snapper in Hunan Sauce-the last entree in a Chinese banquet-isn’t intended to be eaten, but eat it we did. The Chinese traditionally bring out the festive presentation, admire it, then put it in the refrigerator, and bring it out every day during the New Year celebration. The Chinese words for “fish” and “remain” sound alike, so the uneaten fish that remains symbolizes continuing abundance during the coming year. But our dish was intended to be enjoyed, and it was. With chopsticks clicking, we managed to reduce it to a skeleton. 1 hope this doesn’t mean anything about the stock market.

The final dish was dessert, Eight Treasure Sticky Rice Cakes, a kind of rice pudding mold with a sweet red bean paste filling, studded with eight kinds of dried fruit and nuts: peaches, apricots, dates, raisins, prunes, candied cherries, walnuts, and chestnuts-sort of like a rice version of fruitcake or English Christmas pudding, soaked in sweet Chinese wine. Serving it at the end of the meal is a concession to Western tastes: sweets are rare in Chinese cuisine, and such a dish might normally appear in the middle of the menu, not the end, and symbolizes the gifts of perfection and reunion.

Our host explained to us that the New Year celebration would not he complete without lion dancers, a boisterous, gong-banging assembly under a colorful snake-like construction with a stylized Chinese lion’s head. The lion is teased and tempted by the lead dancer with bok choy leaves-symbolizing luck-and the dance is over when the lion grabs and swallows the leaves. Lion dancer shows at the May Dragon are scheduled for January 30 and 31 this year.

Washed down with ample quantities of Tsing Tao beer and fragrant jasmine tea, the meal had been a bountiful feast. My fortune cookie summed it up: Too much of a good thing is a good thing.

the experience

Decor: Classy contemporary East-meets-West motif. The stylized Oriental setting is slickly executed by designer Paul Draper (you’ve loved his work at Sfu:zi and Anzu). Oriental themed murals by Jacques Lamy set the mood. The reds and golds so beloved in Chinese decor are muted into a dusky richness, augmented by dark green and burgundy tones, rich nibbed woods, and a slate floor. Draper combined both privacy and airiness by sectioning the space into separate areas with open Eastern-style lattice dividers that provide a sense of privacy while still offering expansive views. Recent addition: An expanded party room with karaoke and a giant screen.

Table settings: Cozy booths, smaller tables, and large round banquet tables with white linen tablecloths and with lazy Susans in the center. Places are set with small, white china bowls with an Oriental blue flowered border, a ceramic spoon, and chopsticks.

Sound and music: Weekend evenings, pianist Christina Stock sets a romantic mood in the bar with soft contemporary music; during the week, new-age sounds create a tranquil Eastern atmosphere.

Cuisine: The menu is an appealing mix of delicate Cantonese and Mandarin, hearty Hunan and Peking, and spicy Szechuan, plus popular Pacific Rim borrowings from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Polynesia. Fresh local ingredients include Oriental-style veggies grown on Texas farms, Gulf seafood, prime meats, and poultry.

The regular menu includes Peking Duck; Hong Kong steak; roll-your-own lettuce cups with shrimp, chicken, pork, and stir-fried veggie mixtures; and Pacific Rim dishes such as spicy curries, Vietnamese soups, Singapore noodles, and chicken teriyaki. Giant fortune cookie filled with chocolate mousse for dessert! Five chefs hail from mainland China, Cambodia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

The ban A sophisticated meeting place decorated in muted Eastern tones. The bar features an extensive wine list at moderate prices, imported beers, and popular South Seas mixed drinks: Singapore Sling, Blue Hawaii, Zombie and Flaming Volcano.

Dress code: Generally, casual sportswear. Holiday banquets tend to be more dress-up (the Chinese celebrate their new year by wearing new clothes). Weekday lunch is mainly business people and professionals in office wear.

Who goes there: Weekday lunch time draws a mix of local professionals and business travelers; evenings bring North Dallasites and suburban couples, families, and business groups. Takeout is a big draw on weekend evenings.

Prices: Lunch entrees are approximately $6 to $7; dinner entrees go from the $10412 range up to $23.95 for the special Peking Duck.

Best Seating: The booths would be my choice for two or four, but the big banquet tables are great for groups. The partitions provide the sense of a private dining room.

The restaurateur: Joe Chow came to the United States from Taipei, Taiwan, with an economics degree, then got a masters in management at Southeast Oklahoma State University where he met and married Eve, another Chinese student (they now have four children, ages 2 through 14.) Eve Chow is an insurance agent with Metropolitan Life. Before opening his own restaurant nine years ago, Joe learned the business from the ground up in several Dallas restaurants.

Address/Hours: 4848 Belt Line Road at Inwood, Addison. Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. Phone: 214-392-9998.

Chinese New Year banquet: on the menu evenings from January 30 until February 14; $25 per person for as few as two people.

Lion dancers: Shows are currently scheduled from 7 to 8 p.m., January 30 and 31.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.