"There's someone back in that kitchen whose only job is to mince and toast garlic," surmised my tablemate as we demolished a mess of soft-shell crabs in the cushy pink confines of Fung's Kitchen. She sounded very pleased at this notion. I understood her line of thought: every square inch of crab shell bore a golden garlic confetti that formed a celestial grit; it leapt out from a richly muted backdrop of butter and black pepper and ghostly essence of long-since-evaporated beer.
We had encountered this same celestial grit the week before, spiking some pillowy wedges of crisp-battered eggplant stuffed with shrimp. We had dredged the lava-like eggplant puffs in the browned garlic, dipped them into a dark bath of vinegar sauce begged from the waitress, and reflected that eating Chinese food in Houston is a far more cheering activity than it used to be.
Fung's Kitchen, an immaculate and ambitious spot on the Southwest Freeway just south of Bellaire Boulevard, is one of a new crop of Chinese restaurants catering to the affluent, sophisticated Asian clientele that throngs the Bellaire axis in search of extended-family meals, serious business dinners and celebratory feasts. Western fellow travelers are welcome along for the interesting (if inconsistent) ride: Imperial Palace has regaled us with heroic dim sum lunches, Chiu Chow cuisine and outrageous wild game dishes; Shanghai Restaurant has given us regional specialties in a robust, homespun vein. Now comes Fung's Kitchen, with its pretty-in-pinkness and its strong sense of occasion, its knack for seafood and for fried items in the much-abused "crispy" mode.
"Crispy" is not a scare word here; on the contrary, it denotes an unusually well-seasoned batter that fries up into a thin, genuinely crunchy crust. Unlike mediocre fried food, a Fung's crispy eggplant pouf does not descend into wretchedness as it cools; 20 minutes on, you may find yourself still sparring over the last, lonely wedges in their Pyrex pie pan.
The restaurant does crispy crab claws and the more exotic crispy shrimp in their (edible!) shells as well. In either case, make sure you get a little dish of star anise-flavored salt to go along, and a saucer of the restaurant's sprightly vinegar sauce (you'll probably have to ask). And be warned that the crispy squid can be rubbery as all get-out. My Thai friend laughed uproariously as she watched me bite into a thick, gangly piece that literally stretched out and boomeranged back, hitting me in the mouth. "We don't fry this big kind in Thailand," she sniffed disapprovingly. "Better for grilling." Better to keep on hand as a spare fan belt, I thought to myself.
But my uncharitable thoughts were few here, and they were mitigated by the wonderfulness of what I have come to think of as my Ideal Fung's Kitchen Dinner. First up: crisp-roasted halves of Georgia quail to eat with seasoned salt or vinegar dip, so moist and delicious you're tempted to crunch up the more fragile of the little bird bones once you've gnawed off every shred of meat. At $3.50 for two halves (plus a carved turnip rose in an eye-popping shade of fuchsia), they're a bargain.
Next: a dramatic platterful of steamed oysters still attached to their half shells -- plumped and satiny oysters, their opulence neatly subverted by the salty bite of black beans and a green storm of cilantro leaves and scallion ringlets. This is one of a handful of truly great oyster dishes in the city. (Fung's does a similar special of fresh scallops on the half shell, some trailing lush curls of scallop coral; it's a splendid idea, but the ones I sampled had been cooked past their platonic, tenderly gelled state and were entering the Realm of Rubber.)
Then: the sainted crispy eggplant. And: a delicately bitter tangle of deep-green snow pea leaves -- the off-the-menu "pea shoots" that have become so fashionable in Chinese spots of late -- which are more refined than the usual spinach with garlic. Their simplicity suits the baroque pan-sauteed soft-shells, a jillion irresistible garlic bits clinging to the salty, crackly crabs, all to be lovingly chopsticked up with fragrant and appealingly sticky white rice.
A hacked-up Tsing Tao lobster can be given the same buttery garlic-bit treatment ("chef Hoi's secret style" is how the menu describes it), or be coated with a gentle, gingery paste and strewn with lengths of wilted scallion and shards of ginger so thin you can eat them like a particularly obstreperous vegetable. I've grown leery of Chinese-restaurant lobsters over the years; too often they are overcooked or smothered in overwhelming sauces. Fung's lobster was neither. It was reasonably tender and, by god, it still tasted like a lobster. I may have wished, fleetingly, that it had been cooked three minutes less, but I liked it.
I was not so enchanted by Fung's game dishes, which struck me as more show and sizzle than actual substance. Wild boar tenderloin on wooden skewers arrived on one of the popping, steaming black platters the restaurant favors, whereupon the waitress doused it in a sweetish brown sauce that sizzled even more mightily and turned the meat into a sort of candy. The "caramelized onion and black pepper" that had sounded so good on the menu were obliterated by this sauce, as was any discernible flavor of pig. Simple, relatively tender, sauteed strips of venison with lots of ginger and green onions was more successful. But I'm afraid that Imperial Palace's striking venison steak and riveting wild boar stew with bitter greens make Fung's versions pale in comparison.
One dish that didn't pale -- that in fact was unlike anything I'd ever tasted -- was the Hong Kong-style steamed frog legs wrapped in a lotus leaf. Unwrapped, the pale, skinless little limbs coated in a sticky-looking film were startlingly ugly. But the lotus leaf had unleashed an insidious perfume, and gradually the subtlety and penetrating fragrance of the dish grabbed hold of me -- the delicacy of its rice-wine marinade, the way the straw mushrooms and baby corn cobettes had absorbed the flavors and aromas. Strange, and good. Just the kind of adventure one wants from time to time, although I'm still working up to Fung's Really Big Adventure: Hong Kong Style Snake Soup.
One of the real pleasures of dining here, among bonsai trees that stand rooted to their display shelves like so many elderly, taciturn presences, is the contagious gaiety of the large parties who fill the room with clatter and talk. Lazy Susans spin; tiny children romp; grandmothers pursue the strays; earnest hosts rise to serve their guests with a ritual flourish. Huge, splayed flounders and filigreed "bird nest" baskets and tall, cardinal-esque birds carved from tropical fruits move above the throng, borne aloft on theatrical trays. A birthday boy receives a shiny, mysterious white pudding (is it in the shape of a fish? we murmur, craning our curious necks) with a lighted candle stuck on top. The birthday song is (sort of) sung.
I wonder what I would have to do to acquire one of those sculpted cardinal birds for myself; sighting a pair of them, one yellow and one orange, on the table of nearby diners, I feel a stab of envy. Don't those birds make their occasion more special than my occasion? But the laws of Fung's World elude me, much as they do when I spy a lunchtime table of Chinese guys working their cellular phones over a complimentary plate of fresh orange wedges that nobody bothered to offer me, or when I suddenly realize the gratis dish of faintly sweet pickled cabbage and carrot and jicama that I like so much is on everyone's table but mine.
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No matter, in the end. By now I've learned to ask for the Chinese menu along with the English-language version, to order from the pastel sheets of specials instead of the dull, Americanized center of the document, to speak up when I want something. The handsome couple that runs the place is very obliging, and their staff -- though occasionally bemused by the quirks of Western guests -- tries hard to please. It's worth working through any language blips or service bobbles to partake of the scene, and the oysters, and the garlic-crazed crabs.
Note to buffet freaks: the noontime steam table here looks more palatable than most. Although I am not an admirer of the genre, I spotted a number of things I would have been happy to eat. And this is one Chinese restaurant that doesn't exclude all its interesting stuff from its cooked-to-order noontime specials. You can experiment with the crispy eggplant or shells-on shrimp, clams in black bean sauce, or some smallish, quietly seasoned shrimp tossed with vegetables and classy candied walnuts. And at five bucks a pop, even rubber-band squid won't hurt too much.
Fung's Kitchen, 7320 Southwest Freeway, Suite 115, 779-2288.
Fung's Kitchen: roast quail, $3.50;
stuffed crispy eggplant, $10.50;
steamed half-shell oysters with black beans, $7.50;
sauteed soft-shell crabs, $14.95.