The Weekly Eater
Nadine Kam

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Exert the power of
choice at Fook Lam

Set menus at Chinese restaurants are supposed to be an expedient, cost-effective way to dine. Feed four for $24! Six for 36! Something like that.

I never order that way because the choices always seem so pedestrian: egg flower soup, beef broccoli, lemon chicken, minute chicken. And that's it. Maybe there's one dish you crave. The rest -- like any contemporary music CD -- is filler.

Ordering that set menu also means bidding goodbye to freedom of choice, which is an inalienable right at any self-respecting Chinese restaurant, sure to offer a minimum of 180 dishes. Why wouldn't you want to choose your own favorites rather than what's cost-effective for the restaurant?

With the Lunar New Year beginning Wednesday, you may find yourself in the vicinity of a Chinese restaurant around this time, and one newcomer to the Chinatown scene is Fook Lam Seafood Restaurant, which took the place of Sun Kong on the river side of Chinatown Cultural Plaza, and is not to be confused with nearby Fook Sau Tong.

No matter how many of these restaurants open, there's never enough room to feed everyone who shows up for dim sum on weekends, and just as at Tai Pan and Legend, you'll have to wait in line, unless you show up at 10:30 a.m. or so.

Waitresses Cindy and Mui display Fook Lam lunch specialties: Chicken over rice, left, pan-fried look fun, center, and spare ribs with chicken feet over rice.

Try showing up at Fook Lam in the evening instead, when the mood is relaxed and calm. That's when I took the plunge with one of their prix fixe menus, because, for a set price, it still offers a choice of 33 items.

The set price for four dishes plus a choice of one lobster or crab dish for $49.95. Dishes are individually priced from $6.95 to $8.95, so, doing some quick math, I figured four dishes would not add up to $40. I asked about the cost of crab or lobster and was told it was $11.95. Doing the math later, I figured that if I had gone the a la carte route, the meal would have cost $43.90, saving us about $6, but I hadn't factored in the soup and tapioca dessert also included with the meal. So, there's not a lot of cost savings, but you won't be spending extra, either.

Think of the challenge of the set menu as a learning experience, a chance to explore dishes you might not otherwise sample. On my own I'd probably order such tried-and-true favorites as salt-pepper shrimp ($9.95), steamed seabass ($8.95) and clams with black beans ($8.95). Without these fallbacks, I settled for a taro chicken casserole ($8.25) that was a pleasant surprise. Borrowing from Thai cooking, the sauce featured a touch of coconut milk, adding to the creaminess of the taro, which was cut into Spam-like slices. Chicken was chopped into bite-size pieces, although diners are forced to gnaw around pieces of bone. Slices of lup cheong, the oily Chinese sausage, round out the dish.

Among the restaurant's daytime house specialties is the spare ribs with look funn, served in a clay pot.

Squares of steamed tofu ($8.25) were dressed up with slippery scallops, each topped with a mound of black bean sauce and chile peppers.

Because of the New Year, we added jai (monk's food, $7.50) to our list. The vegetarian dish of bean thread noodles (representing long life), fried tofu (house blessings), carrots (wealth), gingko nuts (silver ingots), black mushrooms (spring and opportunity), tree ear fungus (longevity) and other greens, was mellow, without as much of the pungency associated with fermented beancurd used in the dish. Traditionalists may miss the flavor, but younger Chinese and non-Chinese may prefer this lighter version.

A light touch was also employed with the walnuts on the honey-walnut shrimp ($9.95), ordered off the regular menu. The dry, toasty nuts proved more popular at our table than the shrimp.

From the austere jai, we followed with the decadence of lobster in a basil and black bean sauce. As we expected, the basil was negligible, but that didn't stop us from enjoying the lobster.

And the last of our four picks was the mysterious "dry oyster" with long rice casserole ($7.95). As we searched the dish for any trace of oysters, we realized, to our disappointment, that "oyster" was just a shortcut for oyster mushrooms. The dish was good, but too similar to jai to share the same table.

In spite of such a mistake, anyone would have left Fook Lam feeling lucky to have been able to enjoy such a meal.

Celebratory meals for 10 run $168 to $328 at Fook Lam. For extreme decadence, Royal Garden Chinese Restaurant at the Ala Moana Hotel is offering an Emperor's Dinner for 10 for $2,000.

Fook Lam

100 N. Beretania St. Suite 110-112 / 523-9168

Food Star Star Star Half-star

Service Star Star Star Half-star

Ambience Star Star Star

Value Star Star Star Half-star

Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5:30 to 9 p.m. daily

Cost: About $20 for dim sum for four; about $35 to $50 for dinner for four

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com

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