Once upon a time Cantonese cuisine was the shiny new thing. Then again, there was a Gold Rush going on back then. Now "regional Chinese" is all the rage (as if Guangdong Province's Cantonese were not one of China's eight great regional cuisines). Sichuan was flavor-of-the-month last decade, now it's Hunan's turn and Shaanxi's. Cantonese, meanwhile, is yesterday's news. Fuan Garden Seafood Restaurant (4768 Convoy St.) aims to change that.
Part of the problem is our sense of familiarity with Cantonese cuisine. So many of the dishes we know derive from it: fried rice, chow mein, lo mein, roast duck, char siu and more. Many of the cooks who prepared these "Chinese" dishes were from Guangdong and neighboring areas, particularly Fujian (a neighboring province with different flavors). But while the roots of American Chinese food are Cantonese, it's evolved—or devolved—into dishes such as General Tso's chicken, Beef and Broccoli and Chop Suey (the original American Chinese dish) that have nothing to do with Cantonese cuisine.
Fuan Gardenis the second restaurant bearing the same name at 4768 Convoy St. (the first served uneven Sichuan cuisine). While the name of the new place remains the same in English, the Chinese name—as well as the chef, manager, staff and cuisine—are all different.
Perhaps the most extraordinary dish is the salt-and-pepper silver bait fish: pile of tiny fried fish with onion, fresh chilies and no shortage of garlic, salt and pepper. It's crispy, salty, garlicky and ever-so-slightly spicy—what's not to love? I'll bet anything you can't limit yourself to a single serving. Better yet, I'll bet you the rest of the dish.
Not everything's so good at Fuan. The noodle and rice dishes, core Cantonese cooking, are inconsistent. And, oddly, Fuan's "clay pot" dishes aren't cooked in clay pots but come in metal bowls lacking the character of true clay pot.
Roast meats are a great glory of Cantonese cuisine. Fuan, like many Cantonese restaurants, prominently features a case of hanging roast ducks, sides of char siu (barbecued pork) and the like. From the characteristic combination of sweet and savory in the char siu, to the caramelized fat and meatiness of the roast pork belly and the crispy skin and juicy, savory meat of the roast duck it was all good. Very good.
Fuan pairs that roast pork with gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and mushrooms in one of its best dishes. It's the ingredients themselves that speak through the dish, earthy mushrooms striking a balance between the fresh vegetables on the one hand and the roast meat on the other. That's what Cantonese cuisine is all about: subtlety and balance of flavors built on the bounty of vegetables, seafood and meats around Hong Kong and Guangdong's capital, Guangzhou (formerly "Canton").
Fuan Garden offers a taste of typical Cantonese family flavors. It's not Americanized. It is also not high end. It is simple, tasty and real. It isn't fad food. It is food that doesn't want to be confused with its dumbed-down cousin and asks to be recognized for what it is.