If I had to record the sound of a happy restaurant, I’d bring my sound equipment to Confucius Seafood, a clean, bright Chinese restaurant on the older and less fashionable eastern end of Bellaire Boulevard’s Asiatown.
Confucius is almost always filled with the contented babble of people eating well, exclaiming over the occasional dramatic showpiece dish, tablehopping and swapping greetings in Chinese, Vietnamese and English. It’s a glad multigenerational noise that makes me happy to be alive.
But not so glad as the food here makes me. Confucius is that rare restaurant that does really well by its showiest, most expensive dishes, so that if you’ve sprung a bundle for a mighty Dungeness crab or a mottled sculpin fish plucked from the live tanks, you won’t go home wishing you had ordered something cheaper.
Not that dining at Confucius need be an expensive proposition. It’s famous in the Asian community and beyond for its two-live-lobsters-for $18.99 deals, and for its lucky-price lunch specials of $4.88, which offer a broad range of the restaurant’s dishes for half or less of what they would cost at night. I was astonished at the number of funky little fried smelts I got for my $4.88 one noon, and by how much I enjoyed the deft light crunch of the frying job and the spark of jalapenos among the dry salt-and-peppery crumbles that seasoned the dish.
Two live lobsters for under 20 bucks wouldn’t be remarkable if the lobsters were poorly handled, as they so often are in restaurantland. But they are respectfully prepared here: twice running the shellfish have arrived at the table in a festive scarlet heap of hacked pieces that were just moist enough and just resilient enough, without having drifted over into the overcooked zone, in which the flesh can become either tough or mushy.
It’s hard to pick a favorite of the two. The Baked Lobster with Ginger and Green Onions looks glorious on its bed of crispy noodles, and its gentle, translucent sauce lets the lobster meat shine. Yet I was riveted by the fine sharp seasoning rubble that crowned the Baked Lobster With Black Pepper and Butter. Strewn with the finest scallion shavings and touched with a bit of sugar to mellow its coarse black pepper and salt, the mixture was an example of “soil” before soil was cool in the culinary world. Against those buttery flash-fried lobster chunks, it was brilliant.
So was a surprisingly elegant dish billed, rather forbiddingly, as “Pork Blood Jello and Big Yellow Bean Sprout Soup.” Jelled pig’s blood is nowhere near as scary as it sounds to a conservative palate, but the texture can verge on unpleasantly pasty. Not here. The big dark cubes actually did have the glassy shiver of Jell-O, and they inhabited a graceful broth swimming with snowy hunks of fish fillet and bean sprouts that were crisp and (yes) big and yellow. So simple. So good. And so strangely pretty, with narrow Chinese chives adding a note of bright emerald.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much from the Peking Duck at a seafood specialty house. Surprise: the bird was very nicely cooked, with a good crisp skin and a plateful of steamed buns instead of thin pancakes. Smart substitution, since plenty of restaurants that pride themselves on their Peking duck get the pancakes wrong, and steamy buns make wonderful little duck sandwiches once you tuck in a skin crackling, a few slim spears of the white end of scallion and cucumber, plus a crucial a smear of the best hoisin sauce I’ve tasted in a long time.
Hoisin is often too sweet for me, but this one had a savory dimension and what seemed to be a tang of fermented bean paste. In this case, hoisin was a little thing that meant a lot.
The duck-meat stir-fry served with our hacked Peking duck was perfectly pleasant and workmanlike, as was a saute of garlicky pea shoots that looked just a little weary at the edges, as if we had gotten the bruised bunch from the bottom of the crate, or the one left to languish a bit in the cooler.
No quibbles about the Steamed Jade Tofu with pale slick slices of king mushroom, though: the big cubes of fried tofu had a custard-like texture that left me all but speechless. With a low-key backdrop of braised gai-lan encircling the quiet creams and browns of the mushrooms and tofu, this was a vegetarian’s dream dish.
I tried the Jade Tofu again just to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming. Alas, the cubes of tofu had thick, leathery skins this time out, as if they had been overfried and/or fried too far in advance. Same custardy interior, but the magic must come and go. Still, it’s worth taking a chance on, even at the luxury-mushroom price of $13.99. When it hits, it dazzles.
It’s best here to ask the price of the live-tank market specials lest you be left sticker-shocked by the bill. I wasn’t prepared for the gargoyle-handsome sculpin fish lurking beneath the fake seaweed to ring in at $62.50. But simply steamed with soy and a bit of sesame, curved on a plate with its scalloped fins cantilevered across the platter and its tail sweeping a curve, this fish was a show-stopper.
A pretty perfect one, too: its flesh smooth white pearl, not a jot overcooked; and its leafy crown of cilantro and scallion as handsome as festival dress. We could have chosen tilapia, but why bother?
Slightly less dear (in the $40 to $50 range) are the live Dungeness crabs, either served simply in the delicate house ginger and scallion sauce, or presented with ceremony hidden inside a shawl-size lotus leaf, which unfolds to reveal a trove of fried rice and lobster sauce. If you’re in the mood for a splurge, go for this latter version, which is both rich and light on its crab feet.
It’s always fun to stretch your culinary boundaries with a dish or two here. You may not always strike gold (as I did with fresh calamari curls stir-fried with sweet-sour pickled vegetables); but you won’t be bored (as I wasn’t with a clay pot of oxtails and lemongrass that were short on lemongrass flavor, but layered with wilty-crunchy leaves of romaine lettuce, an interesting effect).
If you want something besides hot tea or soft drinks or water with your meal, you can BYOB — but it’s advisable to negotiate this first, by telephone, just to make sure there won’t be any hitches. The pell-mell service ranges from brisk to brusque to endearingly maternal, depending on the luck of the draw. I’ve always enjoyed my experiences here, and even the more no-nonsense waitresses tend to end up co-cospirators to a big round table of people bent on eating well.
And you will eat well. Confucius easily ranks as one of the top restaurants in Chinatown. The Asian community already knows that, which is probably why the owner refused to have the newspaper photograph his food and his dining room. He doesn’t need or even want the publicity.
That’s not to say he does not welcome new customers. On a recent Sunday mid-afternoon, during the lull between lunch and dinner when the staff meal had finished, this puckish gentleman delighted in showing some neophytes the cell-phone photos he had taken of his sprawling, 7-pound, movie-monster king crab devouring some lobsters and shrimp.
He had a light in his eye as he displayed the grisly photos, and I’m not sure whether it came from the age-old delight in shocking the rubes, or the price he quoted us for this behemoth crustacean: forty-five bucks a pound.
Maybe it was a little of both.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.