Since she was a little girl, Lily Lei has always looked forward to Chinese New Year.
The holiday, which is about 4-6 weeks after the western new year, holds great significance to her. Born in Taiwan, the president of Watercress Asian Bistro and Wine Bar didn’t celebrate Christmas and never received gifts for her birthday. Chinese New Year, however, was the time of year she could count on new clothes, shoes, towels and other gifts.
“That’s all you get for the whole year,” Lei said. “That was the only time you would get new stuff.”
The upcoming year is Year of the Rabbit, which Lei said is believed to be a calmer, prosperous and upbeat year. She said, especially in business, people can — and should — take a step back and assess their situation before making any major decisions. The Year of the Rabbit is a time to just relax and breathe.
Lei said Chinese New Year is a very important time for family, which is why Watercress serves a special 10-course banquet meal in honor of Chinese New Year. It is Lei’s way of sharing family traditions with her customers. But it is also more than that.
“For Chinese people, there’s no bigger celebration than the new year,” she said. “It’s more of a sense of extending the celebration to (our customers) — extending a family celebration.”
Since opening in November 2006, Watercress has served this banquet meal, which is personally prepared by Lei, every Chinese New Year. This year, Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 3 and diners can enjoy the banquet for lunch or dinner Feb. 3-5. Reservations are required as Lei needs to know how much of each ingredient to buy. She also said reservations must be for parties of four or more since there is so much food. The 10-course meal is $45 per person.
There are a few staple dishes Lei always serves such as Peking duck, a whole fish (usually tilapia), a hotpot dish and a 10-vegetable dish. For the remaining courses, Lei tries to come up with authentic Chinese dishes that are less “mainstream,” she said, adding that she likes to introduce her customers to different dishes, push their limits and just see their reactions to the more uncommon dishes.
Lei said the banquet allows a person to play with their meal in the sense that there are so many dishes, they can afford to skip one without sacrificing half their meal.
While this is the case, Lei said Chinese tradition dictates you eat each dish, whether you like it or not. She knows from first-hand experience. Growing up, there were certain dishes she particularly disliked, but she ate them because she had to. Each dish represented something different such as good health, fortune or luck for the upcoming year.
At Watercress, Lei comes out of the kitchen when each dish is served to explain to diners what the dish represents, its history as well as its significance with her and her family — whether that means where she got the recipe or what memories it holds for her.
Watercress is located at 16505 Redmond Way. To make a reservation for the 10-course banquet, call (425) 284-3188.