Sometimes good things come in odd packages. You wouldn't necessarily expect inventive Pacific Rim cooking from a restaurant with "Hunan" in the name over the door. Nor would you hope for gourmet sensibilities within a storefront that rubs shoulders with a passport studio and a 24-hour taqueria. But all these things are true for Paradise Restaurant, which has been quietly doing business since July in the scruffy little strip center at the corner of Kirby and Richmond.
The location may have something to do with that quietness. Paradise has taken a space that's housed a series of low-cost Chinese eateries; for almost two decades, it's been home to a succession of them, of an ilk that pays more attention to quantity and bargain prices than to the quality of the food. Overcoming that association in the public consciousness (or collective unconscious) might be easier if the name of the last incarnation, Hunan Paradise, weren't still on the building. Even though the management changed months ago, Paradise is still in the process of unveiling its new identity. The old name still appears on take-away fliers, but otherwise the transformation indoors is pretty complete. A significant step forward was redesigning and reprinting the menus; the previous dinner version had an extraordinary number of typographical errors, which made for a cluttered, inconsistent first impression.
However haphazard the spelling might have recently been, nothing in the formulation of Paradise's menu comes off as slap-dash. A few Hunan dishes remain, as does one sweet-and-sour offering (pork), but for the most part, a melting pot of elegant influences infuses this menu. Taking a geographically unfettered approach, it embraces such incongruities as ravioli, pico de gallo and cream-based sauces for fish and seafood. It has also adopted a handful of dishes with strikingly poetic names, such as Sand on Snow and Clash of the Titans -- which should sound awfully familiar to anyone who's been to the Empress Restaurant on FM 1960. And, no surprise, Paradise's chef, Jiwah Vong, has a stint in Empress's fusion-pioneering kitchen on his resume. He learned about mixing culinary cultures, though, long before entering Empress's employ, and even before immigrating to the United States about 20 years ago. Vong gained exposure to French cuisine while growing up in Vietnam. "Creative Franco-Chinese cuisine," the restaurant calls his blending of sauces and presentation.
The style of French cooking here has nothing to do with the nouvelle cuisine trend that ran rampant in the '80s, though. As delicate as Chef Vong's creations may look, they have a stealthy heartiness that causes many an entree to be abandoned midway. (Food remaining on plates is no commentary on taste, however; Vong has a knack for well-balanced flavorings.) As little as one appetizer and a pair of entrees may tax the combined appetites of two people. So over-ordering is easy to do, and you can't rely on staffers to warn you against it.
In fact, some actively encourage it. I allowed myself to be strong-armed into ordering two appetizers when what I had been asking for was help in choosing between them. The same person responded to my entree order with a protracted sales pitch for filet mignon, which was touted as critically acclaimed but also happened to cost $10 more than what I'd asked for. (This time, I didn't budge.) I chalked up our awkward interactions to a communication problem. As the meal progressed, a different possibility arose. Every time a new item appeared at the table, within minutes so did someone higher in the pecking order than the waiter, asking how everything was. Once or twice is gracious, and even prudent, but with repetition this tactic became counterproductive. The more it happened, the more my party felt like we were being approached for reassurance rather than feedback. In the case of both the menu suggestions and the repeated inquiries, the motivation may well have been genuine enthusiasm, but the overzealousness conveyed an undercurrent of desperation.
Not that we weren't sympathetic to possible concerns. Paradise has a surprisingly, perhaps unnervingly low customer load. Even at dinner, which is somewhat busier, the burgundy- and teal-appointed room didn't approach half-capacity.
The number of people who greet the hostess with familiarity suggests that a following may be in the making. And a number of items could certainly generate a coterie of repeat patrons. The lunch specials top the list. All are moderately priced (most in the $5$6 range), and the adjective "spicy," used to describe them, means a detectable, but not painful, heat. Kung pao sauce, for example, gives a pleasant buzz to sauteed chicken and peanuts; the meat remains soft and tender, while the peanuts retain their crunch. Just as zingy is the garlic sauce paired with braised Japanese eggplant, which is dotted with pieces of chicken as small as broken peanuts.
Grilled oysters ($7.95) are also zippy. Listed among the appetizers, they're soft and lightly breaded, as if they had been pan-fried, with potent julienne ginger taking dominion over the oyster sauce. A more subtly flavored starter is the grilled scallops. The caviar sake sauce has more of a hint than an impact, and the delicate, crispy angel hair underlying the works adds textural oomph.
Caviar also shows up in a cream sauce for shrimp, to equally subtle effect. The shrimp ($12.95) is billed as crispy, with honey-coated walnuts, which raised expectations in my party that both items would be firm and crunchy. Instead, everything was soft -- definitely rich, but soft. The shrimp's coating is too light to stay firm against such a heavy sauce; the walnuts might have had a chance of withstanding it if their coating had been caramelized.
A novel treatment extends even to familiar dishes. For beef à la orange ($9.95), the kitchen cuts the meat in long, fat cylinders, a move that sidesteps the hard and dry texture that often accompanies this dish. Another note of distinction in the dish is the mixture of garlic, chili and ginger, which adds a tingle to a thick sauce laced with enough orange peel to justify the name.
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All of these dishes are surprisingly filling. Paradise's steamed dumplings ($5.25), though, are an exception to the pandemic heartiness. More delicate than the big, fat, overstuffed half-circles served elsewhere, these are big, flat disks with barely detectable filling -- in the case of the vegetarian version, minuscule slivers of tofu, carrot, mushroom, cabbage and celery. You can choose from two sauces: a minced-ginger-spiked soy sauce and a red chili sauce whose heat depends on how much chopped pepper you spoon out with the oil.
Dessert is not something that works as an afterthought here. You aren't likely to have room for it unless you keep it in mind when ordering the meal. But even if half of your meal reappears at the table in to-go containers, you're likely to be offered the chance to thumb through Paradise's dessert menu. Take it. You'll receive a plush album with photos of 15 items -- among them five or so variants of creme brulee, a stuffed pear and tiramisu. Although its name was alluring, I passed up the dragon's eye (litchi nuts stuffed with strawberry cream cheese and arranged like a bunch of grapes) in favor of a medley of creme brulees ($4.95) -- chocolate, vanilla and raspberry, topped with green tea ice cream. The interpretation of creme brulee is singular, unlike anything I've ever encountered. It's coarse and thick, halfway between cake and pudding, and the top isn't caramelized. The green tea ice cream, which I've run across only in Japanese restaurants in San Francisco, is disappointingly timid; its primary contribution is freezing the portions of the brulee it touches.
While Paradise fine-tunes its metamorphosis, I'm filing it away for workday lunches -- especially quick ones. The button-down-collared hordes of Greenway Plaza have yet to invade Paradise, and my lunch expedition got out in barely over half an hour, without feeling the slightest bit rushed. Or begged for reassurance.
Paradise, 2649 Richmond, 526-1688.