Z & Y Garden bills itself as the only restaurant in the Bay Area serving the cuisine of Yunnan, an inland Chinese province that borders Laos, Myanmar, Tibet, and Vietnam. Well, that's great — but what the heck is Yunnan cuisine?
The people at the restaurant don't speak much English, so they couldn't provide insight. From the limited resources in English online and in print, it seems that in China the region is considered a gastronomic holiday destination, thanks largely to a wide variety of wild mushrooms, vegetables, and herbs not available elsewhere. It's also famous as the home of Xuanwei ham, which is prized all over China for its unique flavor.
The most famous Yunnan dish is guo-qiao mixian, "crossing the bridge noodles." There are numerous stories about the origin of the name. One of the more common and colorful ones says that a scholar complained to his wife that the soup she brought him for lunch each day was getting cold during her several-mile walk from home, across a bridge, to the place where he was studying for an imperial exam, so she started floating a layer of oil on top to keep it hot. Recipes, it appears, can vary even more than the original folk tales. The broth is usually chicken but is sometimes augmented with beef, pork, and/or duck; the noodles may be rice or egg; it may include just about any combination of meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables; and it may be seasoned to taste with soy sauce, hot chile oil, or other condiments. The broth is served boiling hot and the other ingredients are added at the table.
Z & Y's version, listed in the English column of the menu as "Yunnan traditional noodle soup," pairs bland chicken stock with equally bland noodles, with no layer of oil to add flavor. At first taste, the dish seemed weirdly flavorless. The trick is to make sure that each spoonful includes a bit of one or more of the assorted meat and vegetable ingredients. The more expensive "special" version includes fish, chicken, pork, salty ham, pickled cabbage, onions, tripe, and hard-boiled quail eggs, so each bite brings different flavors. This is fun, but the soup would definitely benefit from a dose of hot chile oil; unfortunately, all that was on the table was a spicy black-bean sauce, which would have overpowered the delicate flavors.
Another dish known all over China is qiguo ji, "steam pot chicken." Traditionally, this is made by sealing chicken in a ceramic pot with vegetables and aromatic herbs and then steaming them for several hours. Z & Y offers several variations: regular, with medicinal herbs, or with "explosive chili pepper." The regular is straight-up rich chicken broth, simple and comforting.
The famous ham shows up in various dishes, but to get a good sense of it, order the "Yunnan ham with green pepper." The dense, dryish meat, similar to old-fashioned Smithfield or Virginia country ham, is sliced very thinly and briefly stir-fried with strips of green bell pepper, sliced garlic, and diced ginger. Like Smithfield, a little goes a long way. "Yunnan dry mushroom with green pepper" is an identical preparation, with meaty-tasting reconstituted thin-sliced dried mushrooms substituted for the pork, and minus the ginger.
One dish remains a mystery: "Dragon palm vegetable," perhaps one of those only-in-Yunnan items, is a mix of dark purple stems and pale tops similar to fiddleheads — maybe some sort of fern? Whatever it is, it didn't seem to have much flavor except what it picked up from the spicy, vinegary marinade and chopped scallions.
The menu also includes Sichuan dishes, and does not always explain which is which. When we asked the server to recommend a Yunnan dish, she recommended "spicy beef and chicken with chile oil." Pork, fish, eel, mixed seafood, frog, kidney, and intestine are also available in the same preparation. This is a big bowl including sliced meat, wilted Napa cabbage, a huge quantity of soupy sauce with a sour edge from black beans and vinegar, a thick layer of spicy chile oil, and a generous sprinkling of ground chiles and garlic. This dish is clearly intended to be eaten with copious quantities of steamed rice, but, even so, there was enough sauce left over to make two more orders. Not that it was a problem; the leftovers made a great sauce for pasta later in the week.
The cold appetizers are definitely from the Sichuan tradition. The "marinated cold plate" sampler is a selection of thin-sliced pork tongue, pigs' ears, pork and beef tripe, beef tendon, and other items marinated in chile oil, five-spice powder, and Sichuan pepper, a spice (related to neither chiles nor black pepper) that causes the mouth-numbing sensation the Chinese call ma la. The tongue is easily the best item in the sampler, and may be ordered separately as "spicy numbing pig tongue." Marinated cucumbers, prepared similarly, are also excellent.
"Yunnan assorted appetizers" turned out to be a salad-ish cold noodle dish with many of the same ingredients as the cold plate, plus some thin-sliced omelet and vegetables — nice, though startling when you're expecting a sampler platter. Z & Y does a great job with Tan Tan (or Dan Dan) noodles, a Sichuan classic. Fat, chewy noodles are tossed with a complex, savory dressing of soy sauce, sesame paste, chile oil, sesame seeds, chopped peanuts, and bits of jerky-like pork.
"Yunnan ZhangYi Chicken w/Explosive Chili Pepper," despite the hyperbolic name, and despite it being made from what appeared to be equal quantities of chicken and chile peppers, was only mildly spicy, since the jalapeños were that odd modern variety with most of the heat bred out of them. But that was just as well — the dish was balanced and delicious rather than overpoweringly hot, which it would be if made with old-school jalapeños. The same went for "braised green pepper (jalapeño)," which was a tasty vegetable rather than a dare-you-to-eat-it novelty.
Whether it is listed on the menu or not, most Chinese restaurants offer pea leaf when it's in season. Simply stir-fried with garlic, Z & Y's is a nice foil for the spicy meat dishes.
You wouldn't come to Z & Y for the atmosphere, but the dining room is pleasant, quiet, and well lit, and the chairs are comfortable. The servers are very friendly and try to be helpful. As noted above, they speak little English, so the place may be problematic for anyone with dietary restrictions, and if you want to take advantage of the delivery service (dinner only), you'd better pick up a menu first so you can order by number. The dining room is wheelchair accessible, but the downstairs bathrooms are not.
The Z & Y menu includes many more intriguing dishes than could be covered here. If any of you readers check out such exotic items as DarLee bean jelly, black paste noodle, or "old lady's flavor potatos," please post reports as comments on the Web version of this article. And if anyone can identify that "dragon palm" stuff (see our blog for a photo) — please, drop me a line.