Restaurant Reviews

New Year's Restoration

Feng Ling may not be the answer to my recurrent prayer -- to find a Chinese restaurant I can love unreservedly -- but I'm soft on the place for a number of reasons that speak to the intangibles of restaurant-going. Ordinarily food is paramount to me: I'll endure bad service and even suffer the indignity of fluorescent lighting if there's something stupendous on my plate. But there are times for compromise, for tradeoffs, and Feng Ling gently reminded me of that on the first day of the year.

Friends had told me this modest Westheimer-near-Hillcroft storefront served reliably good Chinese food, a shred of intelligence that made me unreasonably hopeful. Houston has such a dizzying number of Chinese restaurants that there's no way to keep track of them anymore, and now that the glow is off my old standbys, Uncle Tai's and Dong Ting, I trawl fitfully for word-of-mouth tips, sure that the Chinese joint of my dreams is just around the corner.

It never is. Instead there are ersatz Hunan/Szechuan menus on which everything tastes pretty much identical -- sweet and garlicky and semi-hot. Or the same old dishes I've seen in a hundred other places, indifferently prepared. Or that dread MSG buzz.

Feng Ling might have been just another disappointment in my long quest, a place with up-and-down food of no great distinction. But it proved to be a poignant lesson that culinary dazzle is not the only consideration when it comes to eating out. Other factors can endear a restaurant to its patrons, and here is what endeared Feng Ling to me.

1. THE SALVATION FACTOR. Feng Ling was open when I needed it, late on New Year's night -- when most of the restaurants in town had closed, Saturday or no. Chinese restaurants often are the court of last resort on holidays (a friend of mine tells a heartrending tale of a San Diego Christmas when he would have starved were it not for a Chinese place). After a day of travel delays, gruesome airline food and a dozen fruitless phone calls to Houston restaurants, my gratitude knew no bounds when finally, at 10 p.m., a friendly voice at Feng Ling told me to come right over. From the moment a small plate of wonderfully funky pickled cabbage materialized, harboring mysterious exclamation points the waiter described as "pepper seeds," my interest in 1994 revived.

2. A GREAT WAITER. Until I met the tall and smiling Tan, a young man with a puckish sense of humor and an explanatory, demonstrative zest for what he serves, I had all but forgotten how the human touch can transform a meal. Quick to pick up on our interests, he showed us the Tan Method for doctoring dumplings -- split open the middle, administer direct hits of vinegar (more) and soy (less), finish with a big pinch of shredded ginger ("I'm a ginger fanatic," he confessed). The steamed dumplings were respectable enough, albeit thickish of dough, the simple pork version livelier than the mild-to-a-fault vegetable dumplings of eggs and greenery. But Tan's demo gave them a certain je ne sais quoi.

id we have questions about the way dishes were prepared? Tan was full of details, eager to answer, distressed to know only the Chinese name of our fish. Did our concentration flag? Tan was at our elbows, deftly carving up the fish ("Eat it while it's hot"), ladling on a suitable amount of broth and vegetables, ministering to us as if we were coddled, beloved children. After a day of outrageous fortune, it was a swell feeling. The more jokes Tan made, the more the new year looked like fun.

3. ONE KEY DISH. In an era beset with numbingly similar Hunan and Szechuan sauces, many of them besotted with sugar, I'm always on the lookout for a good, non-sweet Chinese dish. Feng Ling offers a subtle and gratifying one: whole steamed fish. Moored in a lake of gentle broth, strewn with crunchy ginger and scallions, slyly zapped with cilantro, the fresh fish -- it resembled speckled trout -- could anchor any meal. It was steamed a shade too long for my taste (I like my fish on the dewy side), but those of similar mind could ask them to knock a few minutes off the cooking time.

4. DECENT VEGETABLES. Let's face it, vegetables of more than passing interest are a rarity at restaurants of all persuasions. Feng Ling scores well in this category, starting with a simple stir-fry of "Chinese green cabbage" (bok choy) that has a blessedly pure, elemental quality to it, all crunch and faintly bitter greenness. There's a dish of black mushrooms, bamboo shoots and snow peas that tastes powerfully of some ancient, alien forest; and there's spicy bean curd punctuated by salty, crusty ground pork, in a sauce that resonates with ginger and red chili. And the pan-fried green beans made me reconsider my prejudice against green vegetables seasoned with even a trace of sugar: A final, judicious sprinkling of the stuff played counterpoint to same ground pork and set off the satisfyingly chewy beans to good effect. In such a context, sugar seems like a tool, not a crutch.

5. LITTLE EXTRAS. How to explain the childlike pleasure evoked by an unexpected gift? Savvy restaurants capitalize on the lagniappe principle by offering complimentary tastes of this or that, thereby picking up bonus goodwill points. Feng Ling got on my good side not only with that previously mentioned pickled cabbage, but also with a cup of stout hot-and-sour soup (more bonus points for the dried lily flowers). At meal's end, they clinched the deal with a beautifully sculpted orange.

All of the above inclined me to cut the restaurant some slack when it faltered. This is not a menu from which I would order with utmost confidence. Its low point was very low indeed: a horrific version of orange beef so caramelized with sugar that it resembled beef candy. Tough beef candy. "This is harder to chew than my mother's chicken-fried steak," complained my companion. My horror increased when Tan told us this Feng Ling Hot Beef is by far the restaurant's most popular dish. What this says about our civic palate I shudder to imagine.

or did I find myself persuaded by a crispy whole fish that was visually spectacular -- its fanged mouth propped wide with a toothpick and its sides sectioned to fan out in wings -- but rather chewier than one wants one's fried fish to be, and possessed of a too-timid, too-sweet Szechuan tomato sauce. "Hot and spicy" here translates as not-that-hot and not-that-spicy, a curious trait in a place that claims Szechuan/Hunan credentials.

This is a kitchen perfectly capable of presenting you in quick succession with the good (simple "drunk chicken," marinated in rice wine), the bad (tough, stodgy crab rangoons, a dirty little weakness of mine), and the middling (a resolutely plain soup of mustard greens and shredded pork that needed a lift of I-don't-know-what).

But in the end Feng Ling made me happy -- despite the inconsistencies that would sour me on a more pretentious place; despite the bare-bones Oriental decor that verges on the dreary, all bright lights and muddy shades of red and burgundy, soda cartons guarding a doorway to the kitchen netherworld. By the time I left, a transaction that is at the heart of restaurateuring had occurred: Feng Ling had taken me in and restored me.

Feng Ling, 6437 Westheimer, 783-6120. Hours: Lunch, 11 to 4 p.m., Monday through Sunday. Dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday.

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Alison Cook