The most vexing problem of choice in a Chinese restaurant is not what to eat but what to drink with the food.
Those who think they are doing it the Oriental way order green tea but the Chinese do not drink tea with their meals. They drink rice wine, which does not appeal much or Occidental palates.
That brings us to French wines, but in Oriental restaurants in this city the wine list is usually composed of a scattering of dreary shippers' offerings. If you ask the waiter's advice, you will invariably wind up with a bottle of orange-colored and tasteless rosé de Provence.
A good rosé will, in fact go with many Chinese dishes, but aside from the problem of finding one, what an uninspired companion to the rich array you have to choose from on the menu.
In at least one Chinese restaurant, the problem has been solved with a wine list that would do honor to any three-star French establishment. Nearly 200 wines, most of them growers' wines, are listed at the Tan-Dinh, and what wines at what prices.
The place is tiny, 24 seats in all, but it serves very good and very fresh Chinese and Vietnamese food, prepared by the mother of the two young Vietnamese who built up the extraordinary cellar.
Bob and Freddy Vifian came to Paris from Saigon in 1968. They are real wine enthusiasts and their buying trips into Burgundy have blazed a trail of slightly bewildered winegrowers, unused as yet to the growing Oriental interest in French wine.
The Vifian brothers have outstanding palates, the only reasonable explanation for such a wine list in so small and little known a restaurant as theirs. Furthermore, their prices are low, often as little or scarcely more than you would pay for the same wine in a retail store. In most restaurants wines go for at least double the retail price.
Asked about this, Bob Vifian replied, "We only have about a case of each wine, except for the more popular ones. If nobody ever orders our Chambertin, it doesn't really matter. We can always drink it ourselves."
As for what wine goes with what dish, you can trust them for sound advice in either French or English. Some of the results can be surprising. What would you serve with sweet and sour pork, for instance? The only wine that does this dish justice is a Beaujolais, which also does well with egg roll (pâté impérial).
We tried a few other interesting combinations. A hot shrimp pâté not unnaturally called for white wine, but a cold crab salad with lettuce, tomato, bean sprouts, black mushrooms and rice vermicelli went best with a 1968 Château Prieuré-Lichine, a fourth growth of Margaux in the Médoc. This combination worked because the salad contained no vinegar and because 1968 was such a light vintage.
Even more astonishingly, the same 1968 Prieuré-Lichine went well with a pickled pig's ear prepared with vinegar, ginger and herbs. This dish actually rejuvenated the Bordeaux but if the idea is too much for you, a light Aligoté from Burgundy also did the trick.
Shrimps Mandarin, in a sauce with tomato, red peppers, garlic, ginger and soy sauce, did well with a variety of wines: the same light Bordeaux, Beaujolais, and white Saint-Véran and Meursault.
Steamed chicken calls for Margaux, Volnay or Musigny. Stronger meat dishes such as duck or beef would easily take Paullac, Saint-Emilion, Pommard, Corton or Chambertin.
With a simple but tasty chicken with bamboo, perfumed mushrooms and onions served with the cooking juices, we found both a 1969 Mercurey and a 1969 Fixin to do the job.
Also on their list are wines such as 1949 Château Climens, a first growth of Barsac, at 77 francs, and a 1929 Château Margaux at 420 francs. Just about every other great cru of Bordeaux is available, often in several years.
But the Vifians' real joy is Burgundy, white, red or rosé. As Bob Vifian puts it, "We like to buy Burgundy rather than Bordeaux because it's more fun. If you have the money it's easy, too easy, to buy Bordeaux, but hunting down bargains in Burgundy is really interesting."
They've done well. 1969 Chassagne-Montrachet-Morgeot (a red first growth from Guy Prieuré) at 34 francs and 1970 Gevrey-Chambertin-Les Cazetiers (another first growth, from Armand Rousseau) at 43 francs are give-aways for the quality at retail store prices.
So are many others, every one listed carefully by region, with its year, classification, the name of the grower or shipper (there are very few of the latter) and the price according to half-bottle, bottle or magnum. Such informative listing should be mandatory everywhere but rarely is done.