Ticket to Dining: Chinese Restaurant News honors Yangming & Michael Wei

Sometimes the good guys actually win or are acknowledged for their collective achievements. Such is the case with Michael M. Wei, the humble restaurateur from Ambler who was recently honored by the national Chinese Restaurant News as one of the 20 “Most Influential Personalities in American Chinese Restaurant Industry” for 2010.

Considering the stature of the other winners in this category — such as Martin Yan, the celebrated master chef and TV host of “Yan Can Cook” and the author of 30 acclaimed cookbooks, and Theresa Lin, another well-known TV host and author, known affectionately as “The Julia Child of Taiwan” — Wei has every reason to feel proud.

But that’s not all. The Chinese Restaurant News also named Yangming, arguably the best-known of Wei’s five area restaurants, No. 1 in America in its seventh annual “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants Competition.” Two years ago, Yangming came in second, so this will be no surprise to those who value Yangming’s place in local restaurant history.

It might not have been the first, but it was surely one of the first restaurants in the country to champion a fusion between Eastern and Western cuisines.

Yangming, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April 2011, was also named one of “America’s Top Tables” by Gourmet magazine 10 years ago, as well as one of America’s best fine-dining restaurants by USA Today in a recent survey.

Another reason for the Chinese Restaurant News accolades is the wonderful showing by Michael Wei’s restaurants over the past two years at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan. Two years ago, Yangming was chosen by the James Beard Foundation to present a Chinese New Year Banquet at the house where one of America’s most celebrated chefs and cookbook authors lived for many years.

And last year, Wei and his aptly named “star chefs” were invited back to the James Beard House to prepare a sumptuous French-Asian fusion banquet. Having attended both events in The Big Apple, I can attest to the exquisite presentations, preparations and high imagination that infused both meals and the reception accorded each by food lovers from all across the country.

Not bad for an enterprising young man from Taiwan who came to America in 1970 to pursue a degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. From working in restaurants to help pay his tuition to cooking and managing them because of his increasing love for the business, Wei moved to Philadelphia in 1977 to be closer to his brother, who taught statistics at Temple at the time.

Wei soon opened his first restaurant, Ming Garden in Elkins Park. Thus was born a highly successful entrepreneurial track record. Although Ming Garden is no longer open, Wei’s other five restaurants (including Yangming) are still thriving.

They are Szechuan East, a traditional neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia (opened in 1984); Mandarin Garden (1985), a more upscale Chinese eatery in Willow Grove; Cin Cin (1996), a restaurant in Chestnut Hill where Chinese is “kissed by French”; and his latest, Nectar (2005), a stunningly beautiful restaurant in Berwyn, where spectacular sushi coexists peacefully with Continental and Asian specialties.

Although his usual regimen is to work a 15-hour day, seven days a week, visiting as many of his restaurants as he can along the way, the genial restaurateur loves dining out when he can — sometimes in Philadelphia, sometimes in New York City.

“I love Italian food,” he said at a recent interview at Yangming. “But I also love French, Indian and other kinds of cuisine.”

He also had to admit, “There’s been a buzz ever since this [most recent] award was announced. But we’re always busy.”

The parking lot, cleared as much as possible of lingering snow from another midweek storm, was packed, and the restaurant was humming with the sound of happy guests enjoying another spectacular meal.

Although he was clearly pleased with Yangming’s, and his own, good fortune, Wei said, “No. 1 doesn’t come in one day.” He laughed and continued, “It takes many years of hard work.”

And he pinpointed the secret to his well-earned success.

“Everyone who works in my restaurants becomes part of my family,” he said, “and they take pride in the quality of the food and service and want to keep our customers happy. I couldn’t do this by myself. My partners and co-workers have contributed so much to make this possible.”

Employing one of the most sound and savvy business models possible, Michael Wei works with trusted partners at each of his restaurants, granting them a strong measure of autonomy, even as he helps plan the menus with each of his chefs.

Yangming has two co-chefs de cuisine: Vince Viola and Mu-Yang Shen, both of whom have shared the kitchen amicably for nearly 20 years now. At last year’s “Star Chefs Banquet” at the James Beard House, Viola said, “Michael has this incredible palate. He’s able to add subtle flavors that no one else could do. And he’s given us his complete trust.”

Patrick Feury, Wei’s partner and executive chef at Nectar, has said, “Without Michael, we couldn’t thrive. Besides being creative, he’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.”

 

And when asked which of his five restaurants is his favorite, he laughed again and said, “I love them all. They’re like my children. They’re all different.”

Fair enough.

But Yangming continues to lead the Pacific Rim brigade, with winter specials that reaffirm Wei’s admirable commitment to bring together the best of the East and the West.

In addition to Dumplings Two Kinds ($8.50), lamb dumplings with mushroom, napa and rosemary, and seafood dumplings with kabocha pumpkin and shallots, Yangming’s winter small plates include Crispy Chicken Taco Roll ($8.50), a tangy variation on the Mexican favorite stuffed with avocado, red cabbage, onion and spicy aioli; the Japanese-styled Pan-seared Tuna Sashimi & Crispy Avocado ($12.95), another spicy dish complemented by baby greens and a ginger-cucumber-wasabi-yuzu sauce; and the entrée Korean Style Grilled Prime Sirloin Steak ($22.95), accompanied by kimchi rice, tossed baby arugula and fried egg on tandoor flatbread (and there’s an Indian touch) spiced by pepper aioli, and the equally spicy Woked Day Boat Scallops & Beef Tenderloin ($23.95), served with kimchi, edamame, onion and Shanghai baby bok choy in a Szechuan hot bean sauce.

As you might expect, the chefs will be more than happy to tone down the spice level to accommodate guests’ tastes.

But Yangming’s regular dinner menu offers just as many “specials.” Consider, for example, appetizers like Golden Crabmeat Purse ($9.95), filled with jumbo lump crabmeat and cream cheese with a tangy chili sauce, and Spicy Veal Ravioli ($6.75) in a spicy olive oil, jalapeno peppers, ginger and garlic vinaigrette; and entrées like Mango Chicken with Mirin Brandy Sauce ($15.95), served with fresh water chestnuts, oyster mushrooms and sweet red pepper; Grilled Norwegian Salmon Filet ($18.95), rubbed with garlic and Asian herbs, served in a rice wine black bean sauce flavored with leeks, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes; and Grilled Filet Mignon ($23.95), marinated with Szechuan peppercorn and stone-ground mustard with cremini mushrooms and a teriyaki Cabernet reduction.

And the ever-rotating desserts — Chocolate Coffee Tart, Edelweiss, Crème Brûlée — are a splendid array of fine Continental and Asian favorites.

Be sure to make reservations, as many new guests are finding their way to this beautiful, historic Bryn Mawr restaurant (dating back to 1765), where fiercely loyal regular patrons have been enjoying reasonably priced gourmet fusion treats for nearly 20 years.

If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to meet Michael Wei, the kindhearted restaurateur who has put his stamp on so many great dining havens throughout the region and congratulate him on his latest accolades.

Source: Montgomery Media

By Frank D. Quattrone
Montgomery Life Newspaper
February 04, 2011