The waiter cocked a wary eye when I placed my order: "The Vegetable Platter, please."
"You do know Sichuan, don't you?" he asked in a tone that transcended dutiful. It was downright fatherly.
"Oh yes," I reassured.
He was referring to the spicy cuisine associated with China's western region. The style of cooking announces its progress toward your stomach as it coats your lips, tongue, throat and esophagus with a fiery layer of chilies. This dish definitely had Sichuan leanings.
Not the usual fare one expects to encounter in an elegant, century-old hotel of antebellum ambiance — expansive green lawns and hops-hung balconies — set amid the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada. Indeed, Wawona Hotel's previous menus had been far more traditional, steeped in European influence with a splash of New England country.
But on this particular menu several summers ago, there it was between the Chicken Piquant and Rack of Lamb: a robust, vegetarian-style preparation.
When my plate arrived, I wasn't disappointed. The stir-fried vegetables were still sizzling and brightly colored from the heat of the wok. Heady fumes of chili, garlic and fresh cilantro permeated the room, directing the eyes of nearby diners to our table. Beneath the matchstick pieces of carrot, red, yellow and green sweet pepper, celery and onion lay a bed of angel hair pasta. The pancake of thin noodles had achieved a crispy and golden exterior from flash-frying in clarified butter and sesame oil.
It was a match made in heaven. I found out later that the vegetable portion of the dish was originally created by chef Therese Nicol for her albacore special in New York City's Four Seasons restaurant. The pan-fried noodles were a way to "beef up" the plate a little to make it work as an entree rather than side dish.
If you tackle the recipe, you'll be exploring several culinary tasks, including clarifying butter and the art of julienne. The latter, also called a "matchstick," is a type of cut that makes a long, thin strip. It's a good technique to master for vegetables when you want them to cook evenly and also to heighten the visual presentation.
Using a chef's knife, trim away any root or stem parts of the vegetables. For round ones, like potatoes or carrots, remove a thin strip off one side then lay it, cut-side down, on the cutting board. Two at a time, cut the slices into strips 1/8 inch across. Finally, cut the thin strips into whatever length you wish. The ideal julienne cut is about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, which makes for nice, bite-sized pieces.
So there you go. A delicious offering with a few cooking maneuvers thrown in for good measure.
Just remember, it's not a dish for the faint of heart. As my waiter so kindly pointed out, it is Sichuan. And cutting all of those vegetables into itsy-bitsy slices is a bit of a time-eater. However, an incredibly delicious and unusual meal will be your reward.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.