The golden spot sand bass is fried in a crunchy batter with its side fins sticking straight out like wings. Perched on the platter of spicy tomato sauce, it looks like it's about to fly away. Canton Seafood Restaurant's fish specialist comes over to our table to perform the deboning operation. He quickly renders our sand bass into six or eight nice-sized boneless pieces. The ivory flesh is mild and flaky, and the battered skin is very crunchy. The tomato sauce, which the fish waiter ladles over the top of each chunk, is surprisingly piquant. It brings a hot, sweet rush to the high-flying fish dish.
This is my third visit to Canton Seafood Restaurant. Two visits are the usual standard for a review. Sometimes a restaurant merits a third visit because the staff bungled things so badly the first two times. And sometimes a restaurant is so implausibly stellar that a third assessment is required to make sure it's really that good. Canton Seafood Restaurant got three visits for the latter reason.
I will expound on the food later, but first there's an even more unbelievable thing about this place: its location. Unlike so many outstanding Asian restaurants, which are dotted across the archipelago of ethnic neighborhoods along Beltway 8, this one popped up right under our Inner Loop-centric noses. "Exotic Hong Kong-style seafood, at Richmond and Kirby?" friends and colleagues ask in disbelief. But there it is -- in the strip mall with the Jamaican nightclub, just a couple of blocks from McGonigel's Mucky Duck.
"I think I overlooked it because I was so used to ignoring the so-so Chinese restaurant that used to be in this spot," chuckles fellow Houston Press food writer Paul Galvani one day over lunch. Hunan Paradise, the former occupant, is still listed at this address in at least one on-line restaurant guide. Canton has occupied the space for almost a year now.
The bright emerald carpeting and formal-looking maroon upholstered dining chairs make an odd impression. A long row of aquariums separates the front door from the dining room. Paul and I sat beside the fish and looked over the lunch specials sheet, a boring roundup of the usual suspects. We asked for the dinner menu and quickly became fascinated with its esoterica. We ordered conch, black chicken and mushroom soup.
"You have to order that a day in advance," the waiter apologized. Anyway, he objected, we wouldn't like it. If I let Chinese waiters do the ordering for me, I would never eat anything but egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken -- which is why I always zero in on whatever it is I am not supposed to like. But getting the unusual stuff proved to be a real challenge at Canton Seafood Restaurant.
On my first visit, I tried to order whole fish. But the manager of the restaurant came to our table to apologize. It was within a week of the September 11 disaster, and air freight operations that fresh seafood sellers depend on hadn't returned to normal. He recommended the Dungeness crab, of which there were still plenty, and the crispy duck.
The crab was great by me, although my dining partner wasn't really enthusiastic about digging into the messy pile of shells and doing all the requisite cracking and sucking. She was very pleased with the duck, however. It too was best eaten with fingers, but the task was a little more straightforward. The golden roasted half-duck was chopped into manageable pieces and presented on a platter. Each piece of duck had a sensational bit of crispy skin on top. A sweet plum-flavored dipping sauce was served on the side. We dipped the duck in the sauce and then ate around the bones.
The duck was so good that when Paul and I came in for lunch I thought we might try the pigeon. I have eaten minced pigeon served in a lettuce leaf "taco shell" at several upscale Chinese restaurants, including Dong Ting. I think it is one of the most exquisite dishes in the enormous repertoire of Chinese cuisine. There were three pigeon dishes on this menu.
"Are any of these pigeon dishes minced?" I asked the waiter.
"No, they are all served with bones," he replied.
So Paul and I settled for lobster cooked with beer and black pepper. There are two cooking methods recommended for crab and lobster here: beer and pepper, and ginger scallion sauce. The Dungeness crab on my first visit was stir-fried with ginger scallion sauce, and the combination was luscious. The benefit of this cooking method, besides the ginger zing, is that it leaves a tasty liquid behind in which you can dip the big chunks of hot crabmeat. Beer and black pepper, on the other hand, imparts a rich, slightly bitter flavor to our lobster, but it leaves no sauce. The hacked one-pound lobster is easy enough to eat and the flavor is excellent, but I'll go with the wetter ginger scallion option from now on.
Salt-baked scallops, served with the bizarre dipping combination of Worcestershire sauce and ground salted plum powder, were not at all moist but stunning nonetheless -- especially for those of us who can tolerate a lot of salt. I usually associate a juicy plumpness with scallops, but here the meat has been dried by the salt, and the effect is wonderful. The drier texture allows a nuttier, more concentrated flavor to shine through.
But the most amazing thing that Paul and I tried for lunch that day was from the vegetable menu. Have you ever had a dish that took the most overlooked ingredient in the grocery store and turned it into something sublime? Stir-fried romaine lettuce is just such a dish. Canton takes mundane romaine, tosses it in the wok and serves it up with a spicy brown sauce. The white stalks of each leaf stay crunchy, while the dark green outer leaf takes on the silky character of delicately braised greens. We ate our romaine like the French eat a salad, at the end of the meal.
It was a spectacular lunch, but it wasn't cheap. It ended up costing $50 for the two of us.
My third visit is on a Saturday night, and the place is packed. The crowd is Asian, and most of them are sitting in large groups at big round tables with lazy Susans in the middle. There are so many fascinating- looking dishes spinning around before our eyes as we walk to our table that I am tempted to ask if we can just pull up a few chairs and sit down at somebody else's table.
Before this visit, I called and ordered the conch, black chicken and mushroom soup. The soup, which serves four, goes for $12.50. It's kind of pricey for soup in a Chinese restaurant, but I have an idea there is something very special about it.
American and European chickens are descended from wild birds that once roamed Asia. The Europeans, particularly the French, shop for chicken by breed. The regal poulet de Bresse is at the top of the pecking order, but just beneath it there is a French variety, highly thought of, that's called the black-legged chicken. The Chinese have even more genetic diversity in their chickens, including the oddity called black chicken.
"Black chicken is literally what its name suggests: a chicken born completely black, through and through, from feathers to bones," says Beijing Scene magazine. "It is said that this pitch-colored poultry, stewed for hours to a rich and savory perfection, aids the lungs and stomach and helps supplement the blood. This nourishing quality is called zibu."
If chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin, then Chinese black chicken soup is an Asian megadose of massive broad-range antibiotics. At one Web site offering traditional Chinese botanicals, I even found the stuff sold in pill form: "Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan -- Black Chicken Pills -- Plum Flower Brand -- 10 boxes $7.99."
"Black chicken is our most popular traditional winter dish," Chinese pharmacist and herbal expert Jiao Jianwen told Beijing Scene. "It is most effective at fighting disease when consumed in a soup with other medicinal ingredients."
For the last supper at Canton, we are definitely in the market for some of that old black chicken zibu. My daughters, Katie and Julia, are with me; Katie has been fighting a virus and sore throat all week. And I am just beginning to feel the sharp pains in my tonsils that are said to be the first throes of that nasty bug. I send the waitress to the kitchen as soon as we arrive to make sure they have remembered to prepare the magic soup.
"Yes, the kitchen has your soup ready," the waitress says when she returns. "But they didn't have any black chicken, so they made it with regular chicken."
Substituting regular chicken for black chicken is like using button mushrooms instead of black truffles. It's not the same thing. The soup comes to the table in a special little crock and is carefully spooned into tiny bowls. It tastes like chicken soup with some conch in it, pleasant enough, but nothing to write a prescription for. I am going to assume that the shortage of black chicken is also associated with disruptions in the air freight system and is not really Canton's fault. They did inform me of the substitution, but unfortunately they made no adjustment to the price. We are left to fight off the flu with overpriced chicken soup. I would complain more loudly if the rest of the food here weren't so extraordinary.
Even more extraordinary is the idea that this exotic Cantonese food is now playing to a mainstream audience in the Kirby corridor. It's a remarkable testament to Houston's sophisticated tastes in ethnic cuisines. I highly recommend Canton whenever you happen to be in the mood for Hong Kong-style lobster, crab, whole fish or stir-fried romaine. But if you're looking for ancient Chinese flu remedies, call in advance.
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