Rick Nichols: Sweet and sour on the Main Line

Yangming's anointing as "Best Chinese Restaurant in America" left competitors grumbling that the contest itself was half-baked.

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A pan-seared lobster cake and day-boat scallop from the Chinese New Year's banquet. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

As the Year of the Rabbit dawned across the Main Line late last month, Yangming invited customers to ring in 4709 with an over-the-top Chinese New Year's banquet.

There were - for $56.95 a head - cigarette-shaped seafood-watercress dumplings; crisp, firecracker smoked chicken and shiitake spring rolls, and, standing delicately on end, tender satay lamb chops.

That was just the "hors d'oeuvre trio," before the lobster cake and day-boat scallops, lotus root-crisped red snapper, and tea-roasted duck, and on and on.

Yangming had extra reason to celebrate this year; the crowd-pleasing Bryn Mawr stalwart (it turns 20 in April) had just been named - Strike the gong! - Best Chinese Restaurant in America.

The Jan. 10 presentation ceremonies at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport were featured a week later on CBS Sunday Morning, host Bill Geist contrasting them with the glittering Golden Globe awards teed up for later that day, and tossing in the requisite chop suey joke.

Owner Michael Wei said regulars took to telling him, "You've become a star," playfully demanding autographs.

But others weren't quite so thrilled. Elsewhere in the moneyed precincts of the Main Line suburbs that stretch west of the city, and as far away as New York City, a rather dimmer, more sour view was taking root.

Other restaurant owners noted the award was from a trade publication called Chinese Restaurant News, which charges a $488 contest-entry fee, and contended that the selection process, well, was not above being gamed. (Of the Top 100 winners, Joy Tsin Lau, the banquet hall in Philadelphia's Chinatown, ranked number 16; and Wok, at 16th and Walnut, was 28th.)

Many declined to enter, even after repeated requests: "It's not like the James Beard award," said Susanna Foo, who has operated Susanna Foo's Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor since closing her celebrated Center City dining room.

The flat-out grumpiest response, though, came from the New York Post, aggrieved that the home team got dissed: "Chinese Grub's NY Snub," it huffed in a headline Jan. 19.

With at least 6,000 Chinese restaurants in Gotham, how in the world could the top honors go to a place in the boondocks, it asked - to "Bryn Mawr's pride - an egg roll joint called Yangming?"

Best in America or not, one thing Yangming is not is an egg roll joint. It's a comfortable, 220-seat, white-tablecloth spot in the bones of the old Conestoga Mill restaurant, set on a pie-slice site where Conestoga Road forks off County Line Road.

Its owner, Michael Wei, is no slouch, either. He rattles off former guests, political figures and Villanova University coaches, actor Will Smith and director M. Night Shyamalan. He's a major player in several other properties, as well - the long-running Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove, Szechuan East in the Northeast, CinCin in Chestnut Hill, and Nectar, the trendy Berwyn dining room presided over by hot-hand chef Patrick Feury.

And, yes, Yangming has racked up its share of laurels - nods from Gourmet Magazine ("Top Tables") and Philadelphia Magazine (Best Chinese Restaurant/Fusion Cuisine), respectable Zagat ratings (a 25, on the high end of the "very good" ranking), and florid salutes from suburban newspapers and TV "hot lists."

Had it rested on those laurels, it's a good bet not an eyebrow would have been raised.

But the Best in America?

To be Best in America, of course, is to first best your competitors up and down the Main Line itself. (Not to mention 45,000 other Chinese establishments.)

The Main Line's cup does not exactly runneth over in the fine-dining department; too close to the city, maybe, a history - albeit most of it long past - of private dining at servant-stocked estates and posh cricket clubs.

But a funny thing has happened in the last few decades: Chinese (or Asian-fusion) dining rooms have planted the flag here, and not just cardboard-carton take-out joints - genuine, distinctive, creative places that rival or surpass most of Chinatown's offerings.

Some posit that affluent Main Liners pinch pennies when it comes to French or Italian eateries, but are oddly happy to spring for ethnic food, especially Chinese.

There is also this: a thriving Jewish community at the eastern end of Lancaster Avenue with an appetite for Chinese food.

The lively, contemporary Sang Kee Asian Bistro, a branch of Chinatown's reliable Sang Kee Duck House, holds down this end, near the Whole Foods Market in Wynnewood. A few minutes west, in Ardmore, you encounter Hunan, recently refurbished, owned by E-Ni and Betty Foo (Susanna Foo's in-laws) and a beloved Main Line favorite for more than 30 years.

In Wayne, with Tang Dynasty dragons carved on the facade, Margaret Kuo's two-story masterpiece holds sway, a giant gong struck each time its signature Peking duck is wheeled out of the kitchen.

Susanna Foo's handsome, downscaled gourmet kitchen is next, at the edge of the Radnor office complex.

And eventually, in Berwyn, Nectar, the stylish, Asian-fusion dining room where Michael Wei is also a partner.

Betty Xie, editor-in-chief of Chinese Restaurant News, says 1,084 entries were received for the Top 100 award, and that the selection process is scrupulous, a complex compilation of public votes (including guests picking up ballots at the restaurants, or voting online), critiques and reviews, past culinary awards and "diner testimonials," an advisory panel's evaluation, and a visit from a professional "mystery diner," who notes the food quality, decor, service, and the cleanliness of the kitchen and restrooms.

Still, on the Main Line, where grudges persist over poached chefs and keeping market share is a continuing struggle, Yangming's competitors find its crowing over the "Best" award - on a drumbeat of radio commercials and on its website - annoying.

Not only do they pass on entering the contest, they question its credibility, even - as one said - whether it is "kosher."

Wei himself allows: "I was overpraised."

On that count, at least, there seems to be consensus.


 Yangming

1051 Conestoga Road   (at Haverford Road), Bryn Mawr. 610-527-3200. www.yangmingrestaurant.com

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.