Friday, February 03, 2006

Chinese Food: Décor vs. Cuisine?

"Welcome to Chinese Restaurant. Please try your Nice Chinese Food With Sticks. The traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history and cultual."

--Chopstick wrapper in many cheap Chinese restaurants

A co-worker of mine – let’s call him "Bob" – has a theory. Bob says the best Chinese restaurants have cheap décor. If the restaurant spends money on decorating, then less money is spent on making great food. I have a similar theory. In San Francisco's or New York's Chinatown, the best restaurant is always the one with dead chickens hanging in the window.

Today I visited a new Chinese restaurant on Waugh near Allen Parkway called Bamboo House. The moment I walked in the door, I saw trouble. The room was far too pretty. On the ceiling were fabulous white light sculptures made to look like elaborate flowers. The tile, the tables, the chairs, and even the pretty New Age music were all too attractive. Plus there were no dead chickens in the window. Remembering Bob’s theory, I was sure the food would be bad.

Of course, Bob’s theory is not always correct. For instance, Chicken ‘N Egg Roll has awful décor. The food is equally bad. Fung’s Kitchen has a fabulous dining room with elaborate, over-the-top decorations. Yet Fung's is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Houston.

But most Chinese restaurants prove Bob's theory. Some Chinese restaurants with fabulous décor have some pretty ordinary food. West U’s Qin Dynasty has an astonishingly elegant interior with mahogany windows, elaborate drapes, and Asian artifacts. The food is standard Americanized Chinese food. River Oaks’ Café Le Jadeite also has fabulous décor, including brass castings, huge Buddhas, carved stone guards, and a full-sized chariot. The food is mediocre and unauthentic. P. F. Chang’s also looks very nice, but serves uninteresting food that panders to Western tastes.

In contrast, some of the better Chinese restaurants in town, like Daniel Wong’s Kitchen and Chinese Cafe, were decorated for no more than $10.

At the Bamboo House today, the hip, attractive décor was my first of many warnings. I noticed that no other customers were Chinese. I also thought the pan-Asian menu sounded dull. It listed many standard American-Chinese dishes plus ordinary dishes from other Asian countries: Vietnamese Pho, Thai curry, and Japanese teriyaki rib eye. Finally, the waiter asked if I wanted "white rice or brown rice. " No self-respecting Chinese restaurant offers brown rice.
I ordered Monk’s Delight – a vegetarian dish that usually consists of cabbage, straw mushrooms, baby corn, and tofu. My hopes were low.

Then it arrived. The dish was visually arresting: perfectly cubed chunks of brown, marinated tofu were mixed with thick beautiful slabs of white lotus root, bright green endamame beans, and some other sculptural-looking vegetable I could not identify. This was something unusual. The dish tasted great. The tofu had a nice marinade, sweet and earthy. The lotus root and endamame added an interesting contrast of textures and flavors. Of all the different Monk’s Delight dishes I have tasted, this one was the most unusual, the most well balanced, and the most flavorful.

I wonder whether the other ordinary dishes on the menu at Bamboo House are equally extraordinary in their execution. On this one visit, though, I learned my lesson: looks are not everything.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You left out the best exemplar of the Chinese decor vs food theory: Hung Kee, a block across the 59 overpass from the Geo Brown Convention Ctr. Don't bother with the standard buffet items on the left, but go into the smaller space to the right filled with Asian businessmen at lunch. The Singapore noodles, the foo yung (with "velert sauce"), the Yu Hsiang (sp?) - - all stellar, in large portions, and easy on the pocketbook. Love your blog! "Bob"