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Hong Kong Ahead

Third-generation chef Hoi Fung channels his homeland into his namesake kitchen

\A soccer-mom friend was recently tasked with taking a flotilla of kiddies to lunch. She thought they'd try Chinese, something quick and cheap and simple. Her second mistake -- after agreeing to shepherd that unmanageable horde in the first place -- was choosing Fung's Kitchen.

"Oh, dear," she wailed. "It wasn't at all what I thought it would be." Fung's facade is deceiving. It's stuck back in one of those dreary Sharpstown strips that line the Southwest Freeway, lost in a shining sea of car dealerships and motorcycle shops. There's no clue from the parking lot that Fung's might be anything more than the usual Chinese take-out shop. Inside, though, the homey-sounding Fung's Kitchen is big-bucks elegant, with linen tablecloths and plush carpeting, one imperial red wall rampant with gold dragons. Chef and owner Hoi Fung is from Hong Kong, the grandson, son and nephew of a family of serious chefs there.

"I knew I was in big trouble as soon as I saw the menu," my friend told me later. A dizzying array of more than 400 items are listed bilingually in book form, gold-corded and jacketed in red leather. Living candidates for seafood selections are showcased in six aquariums at the front of the room.

If it swims, hops, flies, crawls or slithers, you'll likely find it on Fung's menu. There are "Delicious Cold Chicken Claws" and sea cucumbers with black mushrooms, frightening ingredients like fish maws and white fungus and goose webs and snake. Even I can't imagine what "deep-fried fresh milk" might be. "Oooh, mommy, that's really gross," piped her youngest, who'd spied a foot-long Pacific geoduck lurking in the bottom of one of the fish tanks, a gray, wrinkly pseudopod protruding from its shell like the tip of an ancient elephant's trunk.

No, Fung's Kitchen is not a place I'd take little Texans, unless the tykes were preternaturally sophisticated or had somehow earned the privilege by, say, making a killing on the international stock market. On my most recent visit, the crowd at Fung's leaned decidedly to the cosmopolitan and grown-up. At the table next to mine, a black man wearing a dramatic dashiki of brocaded black satin answered his repeatedly ringing cell phone with a crisp "Law office!" On my other side sat a white couple, he in a Ralph Lauren urban-camouflage look, she straight from the post-deb department at Talbot's. Directly in front of me were seated two sleek young Asian businessmen wearing matching ultra-starched blue dress shirts. And I couldn't help but notice that the waitresses were sporting some serious 24-carat gold jewelry.

Hoi Fung's fare, I've found, is as sophisticated as his urbane customers, which is not to say that it's all about exotica. One of my favorite appetizers is a plate of shrimp rolls wrapped in bacon. Sound mundane? They're not. Fresh shrimp are boiled, chopped fine, then seasoned and re-formed into fat logs longer and thicker than most jumbo shrimp; the whole is rolled up in thin strips of salty, smoky bacon and broiled, then drizzled with a tangy, slightly sweet red sauce. (Think French dressing at its best.) Even better, you get five of these bad boys for your $5.25, a real bargain nowadays. I also like the duck rolls ($6.50), their thin, crisp eggroll wrappers slightly shaggy with crumbs, Hong Kong-style, stuffed with dark, rich duck meat and shredded cabbage. I'll admit I looked around for some sort of sauce to dunk them in; a few bites later I realized they'd do just fine unadorned.

I can't possibly pick an entrée favorite at Fung's, at least not until I've tried everything on the menu, and I've still got 392 possibilities to go. At the top of my list in progress, though, are the green mussels in saté sauce. These cold-water mussels, meaty and briny, are dished up in their delicate shells, which look like green satin slippers. The glossy brown saté sauce is strongly informed by garlic with a mellowing touch of peanut. I also like the fact that Fung's Kitchen serves steaming bowls of dainty-grained jasmine rice with its entrées, rather than the thicker pedestrian stuff of lesser Chinese eateries.

Faster than I can eat them, new entrées pop up on Fung's rotating seasonal repertoire. For example, on my last visit the kitchen ran out of that Hong Kong delicacy garoupa fish. Our waitress smoothly recommended snow cod instead. "It's flown in from somewhere cold, up north, like Canada or New York," she explained vaguely. "But it's very nice, and everybody likes it." I liked it a lot. The fish fillet was cut into sections and flash-seared in peanut oil, I'd guess, so that there was the slightest suggestion of a skin around the firm, white flesh, delicately scented with fresh ginger. Its stir-fry assortment of vegetables included snow peas, natch, but also slices of carrot fancifully cut into the shape of butterflies and two delectable sorts of mushrooms, straw and enoki. I was a little surprised to discover afterward that the snow cod plate fee was $22.50, at the higher end of the seafood price spectrum at Fung's, but I suppose that airfare has to be factored in somehow.

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