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The Real Thing

Direct from the People's Republic, Dong Ting stages an imperial epic in nine courses

Somewhere between the Shark Fins in a Buddha's Hand and the Silk-Ball of Scallop I lost my will to eat. Twelve dishes remained in the nine-course, 34-dish banquet wrought by six chefs visiting Houston last week from Beijing's famous Fang Shan Restaurant, whose name means "Restaurant Imitating the Imperial Kitchen." By now I half-dreaded the arrival of the Chrysanthemum Fish and Pea-Flour Cakes I had been so eager to taste; I longed desperately for a nap.

Around me, the handsomely turned-out Chinese crowd that had gathered at Dong Ting restaurant for the first of four $100-a-head feasts appeared to be flagging, too. They picked delicately at crusty, miniature lamb kebabs with a rosy interior and a quick, persistent singe of chile heat. They toasted each other with sweet, strong yellow wine. They shifted in their seats, rose for a furtive stroll, sighed at the rigors of reigning (if only for three and a half hours) as the Chinese emperors did: at the tippy-top of the food chain.

Of course, in the ritualistic, highly stratified history of imperial banqueting, where feasts were ranked according to the number and variety of dishes, our little meal would have been on the modest side. The Mongol emperors of the Yuan period were known to feast for three days at a time, and Song dynasty banquets of the 10th to 13th centuries could run to hundreds of dishes and more than 30 courses -- many of them delicacies culled as tribute from throughout the empire.

But in a modern context, the galaxy of dishes assembled by these visiting chefs constituted dizzying excess, from a fantastically carved dragon hors d'oeuvre to the meltingly tender, red-and-white folds of minuscule kidney-bean rolls served for dessert. In between, it was my curiosity that was fed: like many an admirer of this meticulous, variegated cuisine, I wondered how Chinese food cooked by mainland Chinese chefs would compare to what is produced by American restaurants, where Chinese menus tend toward a vexing sameness. Was the grass really greener on the other side of the Pacific?

Yes and no. The best dishes at Houston's best Chinese restaurants can hold their own in this sophisticated company. But while the Fang Shan chefs may have produced no single dish I would trample old folks and children to get at, I was riveted by the delicacy of their sauces, the clarity of their flavors and the disciplined precision of their work. In the hands of maestros whose business is to feed senior government officials and foreign guests, I felt brave enough to eat things I had never eaten before: if Jim Baker could eat fish tripe and young deer horn, why not me?

Days later, I am still thinking about some of the dishes that spun in relentless parade on the lazy Susans that centered each big table. I still hear the sharp crack as I bite into the candied shell of the amber almonds; still see the snowdrift of sugar on the soft "peanut sweeties," a boiled-nut tea snack that Jimmy Carter could love. In my mind's eye, a green-eyed goldfish dumpling swims gravely in its clear broth that has been distilled overnight from 50 hens, its gossamer fish-tripe tail waving as gently as seaweed. "I hate to eat it," murmurs Helen Chang, the assistant to Mayor Lanier who is sitting beside me, fresh from Houston's sister port of Dalian, China. But eat it we do, savoring its thin noodle wrapper and subtle shrimp stuffing, emptying our bowls of that lucid broth, smiling over its appellation, as flowery as any of Tony Vallone's: "Cherished Imperial Banquet Soup."

The cold course yields Singing Rooster, its body a careful kaleidoscope of meats -- pork plain and smoked and ground into a pate-like forcemeat wrapped in mushroom and a whispery mantle of fat -- its wings and crest an extravagance of carved vegetables. Mushrooms with Chicken Flavor compel with their utter simplicity. Bamboo shoots bathed in crab liquor juxtapose land and sea in a way that is that much more effective for being so understated. Multiple Flavor Cold Chicken wears a deft gloss of sienna-brown sauce with a lovely bite of dried red chile to it.

There are strangenesses. A mouthful of Smoking Fish shot through with fragile bones; bony Orange Flavor Cold Rabbit, stoutly chewy and tasting of no discernible orange. But the jerky-like Hot-Spicy Beef radiates a heat that grows quietly; neither saucy nor sweet, it rewrites American expectations of what a hot-and-spicy Chinese dish entails. And boat-shaped little vegetable rolls wrapped in cabbage come on like a tingly new variety of sweet pickle in their bracing marinade.

Then comes the march of main courses. Pale slices of abalone in a translucent wash of the subtlest tan sauce, alive with a hint of red chile and a sharp garnish of cilantro. Flattened Lute-Shaped Prawns sheathed in crisp, golden crumbs, their strings fashioned in strips of green and orange, their flavor preternaturally sweet. Vegetarian's Delight that really is: a tangle of crisp-chewy mushroom strings, chive shoots and broccoli tendrils, all livened with ginger. Even a dish of Sea Cucumber and Tendon seems benign in such company; a duet of gummy-gelatinous textures, half beef offal, half echinoderm, totally -- weirdly -- unforgettable.

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