Our other two entrées both suffered a flaw in common (and it's a common flaw in San Diego Chinese restaurants): an excess of bland, brown sauce. Shanghai-style noodles offered an interesting texture, with some noodles pan-fried crisp, others soft -- much like hash-browned potatoes, and quite unlike traditional (soft-fried) Shanghai recipes. "Moo goo tofu pan" was a vegetarian version of the old-fashioned moo goo gai pan (chicken and vegetable stir-fry). "You don't see this often on Chinese menus anymore," said Marty. Now we know why.
All but one of the desserts are purchased from dessert companies in Long Beach and Los Angeles. The sole house-made choice is a goofy treat. "Caramelized banana cheese Xango" has a fried flour tortilla wrapped around banana and melted, sweetened cream cheese in a modicum of caramel sauce, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon, and served in slices. We loved it. China meets Brazil, Mexico, and Philadelphia in one dish, a good ending for a mixed group of foodies enjoying their rendezvous.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Mark Sun is the third generation of a Hong Kong-based restaurant family (originally from Shandong, in northeast China) with branches in many parts of the world. "A lot of my family in Shandong were cooks for the emperor in the late 18th and 19th Century, and that's why my family became restaurant people," he says. "My father had a restaurant in Hong Kong, and he sent me to Scotland to go to high school [where I stayed] with my cousin, who has a restaurant in Edinburgh. So I finished my apprenticeship as a chef at my cousin's restaurant as I was going through high school. Edinburgh Rendezvous is the name of his restaurant, which is still operating. That tells you why I called this restaurant Rendezvous.
"I came to the US in 1975 to enroll in the University of Maryland. I was doing the Chinatown shift while going to school, until my father opened a restaurant in Lynchburg, Virginia, and sent me down there in 1976. No more college after that. I was going to major in computer science, before there was a [personal] computer. The computer was the size of a building then.
"I opened up a little place in Silver Spring, Maryland, and worked there for two years. Then my cousin from Scotland, who was actually the master chef, wanted to come to America and join me. I decided that the restaurant was too small for the both of us -- let's go west. So we looked around in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and finally landed in San Diego."
The restaurant they founded was Szechuan-Mandarin on Mission Gorge Road. Sun and his family expanded to open Dumpling Inn on Convoy Street (which his brother now runs), China Fun Noodle House in Carmel Valley (where Sun was head chef before opening Rendezvous), and Michael's Grill, which many East County residents consider the best restaurant in Santee. "That was my toy, started back in 1989, called Chic'n'Pick," he says. "It was a little barbecue place serving ribs and chicken. But over the years, Santee has come a long way. The place burned down, and when it was rebuilt, we decided to double the size and make it more like a Pacific Rim grill, and we gave it a new name, Michael's Grill, after the chef there.
"I ran Szechuan-Mandarin for 23 years. I finally got out of there in 2002, thinking I'm done with it. But this business gets into your system, and you can't get rid of it. So the Del Mar location came up, and I was game to try something a little different. Right now, most of the Chinese restaurants here are Pick Up Stix, Panda, or P.F. Chang's. There's almost nothing left [of real Chinese food]. What I'm trying to do is take the old recipes and be a little more creative with them -- change the presentation, use a better cut of meat, that sort of thing. I use rib-eye steak, I use lamb rack for my Mongolian lamb. There's no rule why the old recipes can't apply to these kinds of ingredients.
"I've been eating in a lot of fancy restaurants in Del Mar and La Jolla, but I don't see the Asian influence in the dishes. There's a lot of 'fusion,' but the problem is, they start with the Culinary Institute techniques but without understanding the Asian ingredients. Sometimes they make fusion a lot of confusion. So I'm doing a little fusion from the Asian side -- I understand how black beans work with fish, how five-spice blend works with meat. The concept is new here in Del Mar. So far, I'm doing pretty good. I'm going through a lot of wine and desserts, which people don't expect in Chinese restaurants. That shows that people here are accepting what I'm doing."