REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
One could not possibly write about Yangming, the 25-year-old upscale restaurant at Conestoga and Haverford roads in Bryn Mawr, without mentioning the fact that it was closed for two months last year — from Aug. 18 to Oct. 21 — because of serious health code violations. It was particularly shocking since Chinese Restaurant News, a national trade publication for Chinese restaurants, named Yangming the number one Chinese restaurant in the U.S. five years ago. (The magazine estimates that there are about 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the country.)
Yangming had also won a tsunami of other honors and awards, too many to list here, although you can find them on the restaurant’s website. Also, owner Michael Wei had earned a stellar, unblemished record of efficiency and quality at his other restaurants — Nectar in Berwyn (10 years old); Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill (20 years old) and Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove (30 years old).
Obviously someone dropped the ball at Yangming, and there is no way to excuse it, but I would like to put the episode in perspective. Last week my wife and I found mouse droppings in the kitchen drawer where we keep our utensils, and in the overhead cabinets there was a bag of pretzels and boxes of raisins and crackers which had all been invaded and nibbled on by creatures who had never been invited to dinner.
We only cook for two people and keep all containers tightly closed, so one can only imagine what it is like to cook for 100 or 200 people or more every night and maybe 50 to 100 people or more for lunch, not to mention takeout, private parties and special culinary events. That’s a great deal of temptation for critters whose very survival depends on their surreptitious nibbling.
Again, this is not to excuse what happened at Yangming, just to put it in its proper perspective. Anyone who thinks the Yangming violations were unique should visit the Philadelphia Health Department website and check out the dozens of restaurants and grocery stores, some with the loftiest pedigrees, that have been cited often for health code violations for vermin, rodent waste, etc.
If you are a regular viewer of the TV show, “Kitchen Nightmares,” you might never set foot in a restaurant again. But despite all of these other violators, I know of no other case in which television cameras were invited in, apparently by local authorities, for maximum humiliation of the restaurant.
Yangming messed up big-time, but they have also spent more than $500,000 to correct all violations and institute their own program of relentless inspections. In fact, I know of no other restaurant anywhere that issues an open invitation to every customer to enter the kitchen while the chefs are preparing lunch or dinner and observe as much as you want to. What you see are spotless surfaces and conditions that are virtually antiseptic.
We have eaten dinner at Yangming twice since their reopening, and both were a joy. There is a reason why executive chefs Vince Viola and MuYang Shen (a native of Taiwan), who have been running the kitchen for 25 years, have won so many accolades. Some chefs have more baggage than an airport carousel at Christmas time, but Viola and Shen have earned nothing but good will and respect from their peers in the area’s restaurant community.
On Jan. 13 we attended the annual wine dinner at Yangming hosted by Albertson’s Cooking School in Wynnewood. More than 80 diners were in attendance, more than last year, and everyone we spoke to afterward was lavish in their praise of yummy dishes like pan-seared sweet and sour spicy black sea bass; Singapore roast duck wrapped in chive crepe and also with rice balls and green papaya salad; and filet mignon medallions with steamed Singapore pumpkin cake and baby bok choy.
Someone once said you cannot direct the wind, but you can direct the sails. When it comes to producing consistently excellent Asian cuisine with an inextricable Western influence, the kitchen staffers at Yangming have become quite the proficient sailors, indeed. If you have not been back since the reopening, I would urge a visit.
For more information, call 610-527-3200 or visit www.yangmingrestaurant.com.