Dining at Joy Luck Place is good fortune

You may be dreaming of sugar plums right about now, but all I want to eat during the holidays is Chinese. Give me a crisp-skinned chicken, a plate of greens, a bowl of the soup of the day. OK, I admit this may be a Jewish thing — I’m hardwired to celebrate Christmas around a lazy Susan with pals, most of whom happen to be cooks ecstatic to finally have a night off. Meanwhile, my Chinese friends are feasting on roast goose, prime rib and old Burgundies. Go figure.

One requisite for a successful holiday meal in a Chinese restaurant is the willingness of the waitstaff and the kitchen to serve a succession of dishes rather than sending them out all at once. At the well-managed Joy Luck Place, a 3-year-old Cantonese restaurant in downtown San Mateo, the dishes not only arrive one by one, but the surroundings are stylish and cheery and the staff really anticipates your needs.

Joy Luck Place, an expansive, modern, highly designed space in a new building, reminds me of new Shanghai restaurants. It has a geometrically paneled dropped ceiling that absorbs noise, dramatic external and internal walls of glass, and a bright mustard-and-maroon color scheme.

Recently, an eclectic group of us each chose a dish and somehow, everyone left the table happy.

We piled minced chicken, water chestnuts and crunchy fried rice vermicelli in head lettuce cups smeared with hoisin sauce ($14). We sipped dried scallop and fish maw soup ($13), a delicious, lightly thickened broth with gelatinous bits of fish. Ethereal pei pa tofu ($14), velvety dumplings of tofu and crab garnished with baby bok choy, won over everyone at the table, as did exceptionally moist Peking duck ($25) with lacquered skin.

A signature sea bass with pine nuts ($30), scored and deep-fried to produce big crispy cubes with satiny flesh, universally pleased. Toasty pine nuts and a sweet, hot and sour red sauce amped up its thrill.

A clay pot of rice long-steamed with sweet, chewy, Chinese sausages, smoked duck, pork belly and greens ($30) on top, ended the meal. The juices of the cured meats dripped down into the rice which developed delectable crusty edges along the bottom.

As much as I enjoyed this dinner, it was a lunch at Joy Luck Place that really excited me. I sat in the smaller noodle and dim sum room, which has an open kitchen.

A free-range pedigree was evident in cold boiled chicken ($7) — firm, plump skin and moist flesh gracefully cut into pieces through the bone, served with a ginger and scallion dipping paste. Giant won tons called shui kau ($6.50) filled with shrimp and black mushrooms sat atop the finest fresh egg noodles, which somehow stayed al dente in the hot, flavorful broth.

When I bit into a floppy white section of daikon roll ($4.50), my tongue experienced a dialectic between crunchy and soft — first crisp, toasted sesame seeds, then melting rice flour noodle, then a crunchy layer of long Chinese doughnut filled with a contrasting puree of steamed daikon and yellow chives. A dip into sesame oil mixed with soy sauce brought everything together.

When the urge for a holiday meal overtakes me, I’m heading straight to Joy Luck Place.

Joy Luck Place

Location: 88 East 4th Ave., San Mateo

Contact: (650) 343-6988

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday

Price range: Dim sum starts at $2.60; banquet for 10 is $668

Recommended dishes: Shui kau soup noodles; daikon roll; cold steamed chicken; pei pa tofu; Peking duck; fried sea bass with pine nuts

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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