The riddle of Turandot
Henri sings the praises of the opera—and the restaurant
While Henri loves little more than cuddling up on the couch with Pottery Barn catalogues and Edith Piaf, sometimes—particularly on brisk Sunday mornings in the fall—he likes to just lie back, close his eyes and listen to opera, especially Puccini, the volume turned up all the way. There’s nothing quite like “Nessun Dorma,” the great aria from Turandot. Henri weeps every time. At the majestic music, the exotic locale, the dramatic suicide, and the love that turns a bloodthirsty princess into compassionate woman.
Turandot, first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1926, takes place in ancient China in Peking’s Imperial Palace. It’s the story of fatal attraction, of a cold and cunning princess and her suitors, each of whom must answer three riddles to win her hand or die: What is born each night and dies each dawn? What flickers red and warm like a flame yet is not fire? What is like ice but burns? Only one suitor answers all three correctly. Stunned, the princess begs the emperor not to give her over to a stranger. Graciously, the stranger offers a riddle of his own: If she can guess his name by dawn, he will forfeit his own life.
Ultimately, a young woman, Liu, the only one who knows the stranger’s name—because she has loved and been faithful to him—kills herself rather than reveal the secret. Turandot, shocked by the woman’s sacrifice, falls, weeping, into the arms of the stranger, himself a prince and who tells her his name. In the end, she announces to her father the secret name.
The other afternoon I took a drive through Lower Park, listening to a tape of my favorite version of Turandot—Pavarotti singing the part of the stranger/prince. By the time I pulled into the parking lot at One-Mile, it was getting dark, Liu was dead, and the prince and princess had sung their song of eternal love. I took a took a long breath, wiped my eyes and, famished, headed over to The Esplanade to the Turandot restaurant, where I ate dinner and ended up with six boxes of take-out—lunch for the next three days.
I always start with a couple of spring rolls ($2.75), which, dipped in hot mustard, clear both sinuses and mind. My favorite, the sautàed green beans, came out next, and I was just savoring their subtle garlic when my waitress reappeared with the garlic broccoli, the house chow mein and the zha jiange noodles—diced pork with onions, garlic, and bean sauce. I filled my plate, took a few bites, and she was back, this time with the Mongolian beef, with just the right amount of red peppers and onion to recall the bite in the hot mustard.
The highlight, though, was the sizzling chicken plate, which she cooked tableside and served up with cabbage, snow peas, water chestnuts, mushrooms, and carrots. Everything had the perfect combination of flavors and ingredients.
Turandot chef specials run $10-$12, appetizers up to $8.50 (shrimp dumplings), chow mein and other noodle dishes $5-$9, pork, beef, chicken, and seafood dishes are $7-$10, and the sizzling plates (beef, chicken, lamb, seafood) are all about $10.
As you’d expect, the wine list at Turandot is not particularly exciting, but their Gerwurztraminer—probably the best wine with Chinese food—is decent (Bookwalter) and certainly affordable—$4.25 for glass, $15 a bottle. You can also bring your own ($6 corkage fee). Tsing Tao beer is $3.50.
My bags of take-out barely fit into my little Renault—I really should clean it out—but I didn’t mind, as on the way home I listened again to Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” and thought about riddles. The stranger’s correct answers to Turandot’s? Dawn, blood, and you. And the name the princess finally calls him? Love.
Now a Turandot riddle for readers to sing:
Not Henri or Bourride, I beg pardon,
But a hero, a saint, and a king,
And a man selling meat in a stallion garden.