The Real Thing

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.  

Fish tripe materializes, a spookily soft, faintly gummy white cloud that is delicately sauced and dotted with tart red seeds. I've tasted these seeds in the wild boar with mustard greens at Imperial Palace, where no one could furnish an English name for them. "What are these?" I ask chipper young David Tang, the president of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce and a part-owner of Dong Ting, who has worked for three months to arrange the Houston leg of the Fang Shan chefs' second-ever stint in America. Tang is stumped for a translation. "It's a wonderful Chinese medicine," he replies, sketching out the ideogram that is their Chinese name. He smiles apologetically. "It's like trying to translate aspirin to another language."

Chinese cuisine traditionally attributes tonic properties to various foodstuffs, and tonight we are regaled with another one: transparent wafers of young deer antler that are added, with a ritual flourish, to individual bowls of a broth called Tonic Chicken Breast. The antler shavings look like water chestnut, taste like nothing at all; but the faintly gelatinous soup laced with tiny, tender chicken morsels seems as if it might cure what ailed you.

By now, two-thirds of the way through the epic menu, I'm feeling as if I need a tonic. I regard the feathery mounds of sharks fin molded into the shape of a plump Buddha's hand with a certain despair. But flash-fried, unbattered scallops in an evanescent sauce of tart pineapple juice merit their "Silk-Ball"; then Jade Fans, a gorgeous mosaic of deep-green, deliciously bitter gai lan (the Chinese broccoli) gives me a third wind.

I manage a few bites of Chrysanthemum fish, its head propped erect, its tail splayed behind, its flesh sliced, deep-fried and strewn in a flowery tumble across the platter. It's fishy fish, but its sweet-sour sauce is a surprise: low-key and deep-golden rather than the cloying, neon-orange goo to which Americans have grown accustomed. Beside me, a cultural attache from the People's Republic embassy dives into seconds of Imperial Tofu; stuffed with a layer of ground pork, it resembles a wheel of cheese bearing a garden landscape detailed down to the wispy, scallion bamboo. Baby bok choys radiate from its edge, along with disconcerting maraschino cherries -- a jarring modern note in the midst of the extravagant visuals that were a hallmark of imperial cuisine.

Restoratives appear: the Emperor's Porridge, a deep-purple gruel laced with chewy bean skins; and Wulong Tea of Frozen Peak to help soothe the stomach. Not that we're finished. There's still the so-called Palace Cheer-up to contend with, a dim sum quartet that includes a savory, deep-fried pork roll; duck tucked into a crisp bear-claw-shaped pastry; a blandish curry dumpling; and a soft, sesame-seeded bun. Cultural consul Lin Zuosen of the People's Republic shows me how to stuff this bun, sandwich-style, with a ground-pork mixture that sits in its own separate saucer. It goes into thimble-sized corn buns, too; according to Zuosen, these miniature pastries were the imperial kitchen's answer to a peasant bread one emperor acquired a taste for during a long, hungry day's hunting in the boondocks.

That's the way of this banquet: imperial dishes come with symbolic meanings and parables attached. There's a story about the pasty little dessert rectangles of sweetened pea flour beloved of one dowager empress, and doubtless another concerning the baby-bear-claw pastry fit for a dolls' tea party. But by now minor social breakdown has set in. Oversated diners are tablehopping, looking slightly green around the gills; when a couple of the Fang Shan chefs stage a vegetable carving exhibition under Dong Ting's chandelier, the banqueters crowd around, oohing and ahing as carrots and beets are transmuted into a whimsical bird, a many-leaved rose.

From behind the restaurant's elegant screens, models costumed in Fang Shan's elaborate court dress look on, their heads dwarfed by towering headdresses centered with plate-sized silk roses. After four nights of such excess, the costumes and props and chefs were scheduled to proceed to Austin, Dallas and beyond, leaving Dong Ting's kitchen with a crash course in imperial-style cookery. "We'll try to learn something while they're here and put some of their dishes on our regular menu," says David Tang, while manager Sherman Zhang circulates, trying to ascertain the evening's favorites.  

This is good news. While Dong Ting has a fine new chef, they still have a schizoid menu: much of it inherited from the Hunan-era Dong Ting, part of it geared toward American expectations. Maybe the Fang Shan interlude is what the restaurant needs to spur a menu with its own internal logic. Pricey vintner and guest-chef dinners occur virtually every week in Houston, but one that leaves changes in its wake -- let alone so much food for thought -- is a rare event.

Dong Ting, 611 Stuart, 527-0005.

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