Brighton, MA: Ringing in Chinese New Year at Joyful Garden
It all started when my friend (and occasional Serious Eats collaborator) Kate Shannon asked her culinary school instructor and famed cookbook author Helen Chen where she likes to eat Chinese food in Boston. Chen's reply: Joyful Garden in the Days Hotel in Brighton.
The Days Hotel?
She wasn't kidding, and Kate and I were curious—if not a little incredulous. I couldn't think of a stranger destination for authentic Cantonese cuisine than this run-of-the-mill hotel chain, but last weekend we rallied a crew of Chinese food die-hards and gave it a shot. There was no denying it: This place is a true hidden gem and, for me, a hotel dining room dream come true. (No offense, Four Seasons.)
The Pork Chops with Spiced Salt and Pepper, Lobster with Ginger and Scallions, and Sautéed Peapod Stems were all great, but what we'd really come for were some of the Chinese New Year specials available only off of the separate, very different Chinese menu*. Trouble was, none of us could read Chinese characters, and it took some convincing to prove to the staff that we wanted to try the traditional fare that wasn't listed on the English (read: American-friendly) menu. (We weren't the first to broach the subject; there's a whole thread on Chowhound where Joyful Garden fans bemoan the lack of an English translation of the menu. Sigh. My kingdom for a little street cred.)
The dish we finally got to try: Fa Cai Hao Shi ($29.95), a popular New Year's stew of braised dried oysters, pork belly, Chinese mushrooms, whole garlic cloves, lettuce leaves, and mossy fa cai (or fat choy). According to the restaurant's manager, the name of the dish roughly translates to "Make a Lot of Money, Good Things Coming," and the various components each represent the idea of luck and good fortune. Some of the allusions are phonetic. Fai cai, for example, is a variety of fungi that looks like fine black hair (it's also known as hair seaweed), and the Chinese word for it sounds almost exactly like the word for "prosperity"; hao shi, dried or preserved oysters, sounds similar to the word that means "good things."
It was definitely a seafood-lover's dish. Though the mushrooms provided real earthy depth (and great springy chew) and there was a healthy pile of nicely crisped pork belly chunks inside the shellfish crown, the oysters dominated. They were huge and meaty (an auspicious sign?!), creamy inside, and delivered that funky, fishy (Kate thought "smoky") edge that's fairly common with dried seafood. Great stuff.
Try it, even if you're a little intimidated. You'd be foolish to pass up a helping of good fortune.
Xīn Nián Kuài Lè.
* Kate, who deserves major kudos for introducing us to this restaurant, is in the process of trying to get some of her Chinese coworkers to translate the menu. If it works out, she'll be accepting cash, checks, and money orders.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.