Da San Yuan: Foodie stampede!

Frank Ma returns

I've seldom seen so many foodies sprint to the same destination as quickly as they have in the last few weeks to Da San Yuan (5380 New Peachtree Road, 770-234-4885). The restaurant at Chinatown Square didn't even have a sign of its own up last week. It was still identified as Dinho.

The excitement? Frank Ma, who formerly operated Frank Ma's Gourmet in the same location, is back on the job. Ma has not actually invested in this new restaurant. He has signed a two-year contract with the current owners to operate the restaurant with his wife Amy.

Ma has been operating restaurants in our city since at least the mid-'70s, when he opened a restaurant on Roswell Road near Sandy Springs. It was without question many Atlantans' first taste of gourmet Chinese cooking. Ma is an affable host who has hired some of the city's best chefs, specializing in the cuisine of Shanghai and Taiwan.

The decor has not changed during the couple of years the restaurant has operated as Dinho, following Ma's sale of it in 2005. There's a mirrored wall (which I refused to face while eating), bright green walls, white railings and, beneath your feet, a disco-style mosaic of blinking colored lights. Everybody dance now!

During our visit, Ma and his wife traveled from table to table, interviewing diners about their taste and making recommendations. As it turned out, he was making many of the same recommendations to people. The larger your party, the happier you're going to be, because you'll be able to taste a broader selection of what is probably going to be immediately pegged as the best Chinese food in town. And here's some extra good news: It's cheap!

You'll start with some complimentary pickles and boiled peanuts. We ordered the steamed Shanghai-style pork buns for an appetizer. You spoon these one by one into a little bowl, dot them with some savory soy-based sauce and then pop the amazingly delicate goodies into your mouth.

We also ordered the starter of scallion pancake, pan-fried and layered, stuffed lightly with scrambled eggs and noodles, as well as the chopped scallions. Already, we were oohing and ahing over the delicate textures and subtle tastes.

Next up was "Chinese bacon," thick-cut squares of pork belly ribbed with fat, and tossed with jalapeños and leeks. Here and there, a fiery bite contrasted with the caramelized leeks. The pork's fat was rendered, but not enough to change the soft, slightly chewy texture.

If the pork belly occasionally stung our tongues, a huge bowl of "sliced fish in hot oil" seemed straight off a Szechuan menu. Its oily broth was almost blisteringly piquant while the fish – cooked with onions, black mushrooms and bok choy – was soft and custardy.

Our final dish was "chive flowers" with strings of bean curd. There were no literal flowers in the dish, but it nonetheless had a striking floral taste cranked up with lots of ginger. It was another perfect marriage of textures – delicate blades of chives, barely crunchy, played against the chewy bean curd.

Ma came to our table as a server arrived with a complimentary dish of some kind of beans floating in a sweet liquid. "The only trouble with Chinese food," he said, "is the lack of desserts." Frankly, we couldn't finish the dessert, anyway. In fact, we ended up carrying half the meal home.

If you've never eaten in one of Frank Ma's restaurants, you are in for a discovery. The menu here is the same as the original and ranges from familiar classics to intimidating dishes featuring offal. It is hard to go wrong with any choice and, of course, the 68-year-old Ma is always ready to be your culinary guide.

In East Atlanta Village

Kasan Red (517 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-549-9630) takes its name from the color of a 1973 VW Beetle driven by the owners, John and Alex McLaughlin. It's meant to suggest a "laid-back, slightly funky feeling and attitude," according to the restaurant's website.

They certainly deserve props for their effort to feature organic and local produce, along with free-range meats and eggs. And their menu, like the pleasant dining room, is certainly funky. In fact, it's so funky that it's retro to my taste.

I'm not up for ever eating another gram of spinach-artichoke dip, for example. I'm really kind of tired of hummus, too, and Kasan Red's, offered in garlic and roasted-red-pepper flavors, is tasty enough if literally too stiff to scoop with the warmed slices of pita bread accompanying it (in a sunburst design with celery stalks). Much better were fried patties of zucchini, carrots and feta cheese accompanied by a sauce flavored with more roasted red peppers.

Entrees were frankly strange, in that they had good flavor but were bizarrely overcooked. Indeed, a grilled fillet of salmon, offered with a cucumber-dill sauce or lemon aioli, crumbled every time the fork hit it. But weirdly, it nonetheless tasted pretty good. We ordered both sauces and I preferred the aioli.

A grilled chicken breast was similarly dry, even with a Madeira cream sauce. And, like the salmon, it nonetheless tasted pretty good. I'm going to chalk this odd disparity up to the high-quality ingredients the restaurant is using.

We both ordered the same vegetable sides – a Caprese salad and a spaghetti squash timbale. The latter was yummy, even though served cool. The tomatoes in the Caprese salad were barely passable but, hey, it's the dead of winter. The basil and mozzarella were fine.

The very hospitable owner is Australian, and Wayne was excited to try a lager, James Boag's, from Tasmania. Our server, an American who once picked avocados to make cash while traveling in Australia, was great. She and Wayne deliberated at length over whether a bonsai-type plant on the bar was an avocado tree.

This is one of those restaurants whose ambiance and staff are likable, and I wish the food were more so. Kasan Red also serves breakfast, lunch and brunch. I'll return one day soon to give breakfast a try.

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