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New Year's Restoration

How salvation beats dazzle, and other mysteries of the restaurant trade

5. LITTLE EXTRAS. How to explain the childlike pleasure evoked by an unexpected gift? Savvy restaurants capitalize on the lagniappe principle by offering complimentary tastes of this or that, thereby picking up bonus goodwill points. Feng Ling got on my good side not only with that previously mentioned pickled cabbage, but also with a cup of stout hot-and-sour soup (more bonus points for the dried lily flowers). At meal's end, they clinched the deal with a beautifully sculpted orange.

All of the above inclined me to cut the restaurant some slack when it faltered. This is not a menu from which I would order with utmost confidence. Its low point was very low indeed: a horrific version of orange beef so caramelized with sugar that it resembled beef candy. Tough beef candy. "This is harder to chew than my mother's chicken-fried steak," complained my companion. My horror increased when Tan told us this Feng Ling Hot Beef is by far the restaurant's most popular dish. What this says about our civic palate I shudder to imagine.

or did I find myself persuaded by a crispy whole fish that was visually spectacular -- its fanged mouth propped wide with a toothpick and its sides sectioned to fan out in wings -- but rather chewier than one wants one's fried fish to be, and possessed of a too-timid, too-sweet Szechuan tomato sauce. "Hot and spicy" here translates as not-that-hot and not-that-spicy, a curious trait in a place that claims Szechuan/Hunan credentials.

This is a kitchen perfectly capable of presenting you in quick succession with the good (simple "drunk chicken," marinated in rice wine), the bad (tough, stodgy crab rangoons, a dirty little weakness of mine), and the middling (a resolutely plain soup of mustard greens and shredded pork that needed a lift of I-don't-know-what).

But in the end Feng Ling made me happy -- despite the inconsistencies that would sour me on a more pretentious place; despite the bare-bones Oriental decor that verges on the dreary, all bright lights and muddy shades of red and burgundy, soda cartons guarding a doorway to the kitchen netherworld. By the time I left, a transaction that is at the heart of restaurateuring had occurred: Feng Ling had taken me in and restored me.

Feng Ling, 6437 Westheimer, 783-6120. Hours: Lunch, 11 to 4 p.m., Monday through Sunday. Dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday.

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