To the generation that fought World War II, the words "flower lounge" bring images of battle-weary GIs on R&R in the South Pacific, gratefully savoring decent liquor, exotic food, and gracious service by graceful women in bamboo-zy earthly paradises. Here in San Francisco, Hong Kong Flower Lounge has always been briskly festive rather than tropically sybaritic -- but when it opened (in 1990), it offered the pleasures I'd been craving. The third Bay Area branch (the other two are in Millbrae) of a minichain based in Hong Kong, it served flavorful Southern Chinese specialties rarely encountered locally at that time, to a patronage more soy than salt: "The acceptance in the Chinese community is evident," wrote Examiner food critic Jim Wood. "Hong Kong Flower Lounge is for real and its customers know it."
In the first five years, I probably ate there a couple of dozen times, enjoying the unusual ingredients, the light, sophisticated sauces, and the perfectly cooked seafoods. Recently, though, I've been drawn to the inflorescence of exciting new Hong Kong eateries that the recent wave of immigrants has brought to Noriega, Irving, and lower Clement streets. These usually have plainer decor than HKFL, but equally "real" cooking, at somewhat lower prices. Still, when some old friends came visiting from exotic far-off Louisville, and wanted to try more authentic modern Chinese food than Kentucky offers, I took them to HKFL on the assumption it was still among the best. The capacious room looked the same as ever, with lots of "good luck"-red and "prosperity"-gold, a spiffy little bar in front, live-tanks along one wall, and white-naped tables sized to accommodate both your food and your elbows. What had visibly changed was the people at those tables: There were no, naught, zero, zilch, goose-egg Asians eating there that night. Apparently, the local Chinese community has also turned to the newer restaurants: Spiffy decor counts at business dinners, but for the family, price matters more. Worse yet, more than half the tables bore the same pair of gala but unexotic entrees: Maine lobster and Peking duck. The restaurant does these well, but the array boded ill. All restaurants respond to their patrons' wants and demands, and those patrons weren't likely to demand Cantonese specialties cooked to Hong Kong standards.
For reasons unknown, manager Dennis Wong himself served us that night, with such zeal that my friends kept asking me if he'd recognized me. "Sure," I said, "he's gotta know my face, all the times I've eaten here." "No, I mean, this VIP treatment -- does he know you're a reviewer?" Janie whispered. That was impossible, I assured her: "I just got the job and haven't seen print yet. Besides, I've always gotten good service here -- not quite this attentive, but polite and helpful. Maybe 'cause I order the weird stuff," I added. But when I looked at the menu, I didn't see much weird stuff on it. Some of my favorites (like the ethereal "crystal prawns") had disappeared, while there seemed to be many more routine Szechuanese dishes than I remembered. We began with a famous appetizer, originated in Kowloon by one of the world's greatest restaurants, Lai Ching Heen: fried coins of sea scallop and fresh sliced pear ($5). I've never been able to afford Lai Ching Heen, but at previous visits I thought HKFL had done a pretty good job. That night, the scallops were rubbery. In our bland corn and crab meat soup ($8), both main ingredients were flavorless. Our live-tank fish tasted dead (and cost a lot), and its routine sauce didn't revive it. Worse yet, the seasonal special of sweet, delicate snow pea shoots with black mushrooms suffered a brutal mugging by a glutinous cornstarch-thickened brown sauce. Several dishes were better: Minced squab in lettuce cup ($10) and grease-free Yang Chow fried rice ($9) were competent, and the lovely Tien Jein cabbage with ham ($10) had poached heads of mature pak choy bedecked with thin slices of Smithfield ham, over a gleaming pond of translucent golden liquid.
Curious about whether the apparent changes were permanent and consistent, TJ and I returned a few weeks ago and found the restaurant again filled with guei lo. We deliberately ordered too many things. The scallop and pear appetizer had returned to form, but "wok-charred" calamari ($6) (which I vaguely remember as a savory stir-fried dish with bell peppers) were coated with a heavy bread-crumb-egg batter and deep-fried in a neutral, greasy-tasting oil (perhaps trendy canola, Oil of Evil -- which has been tragically supplanting China's delicious, nut-flavored Lion and Globe peanut oil in far too many Asian kitchens). We loved "pan-fried fresh scallop and beef chunks with Chef's sauce" ($12), two tender meats of contrasting flavors, mingling with red and green pepper squares in a light, soulful sauce. We also enjoyed Dai Chin seafood clay pot ($12), wherein a very spicy thin sauce enrobed prawns, sea scallops, calamari, fresh oysters, and a scattering of whole Chinese black beans. Thick rectangles of browned tofu (firm outside, soft inside) mirrored the texture of their oyster comrades; you can't hate tofu that's done its job so well, absorbing and playing back all the peppery and oceanic flavors around it. Fuken fried rice ($10) was a kick, too. A moist topping of diced seafoods and shiitake mushrooms had a slightly overthickened sauce, hiding a heap of rice scented with dried shrimp and golden with egg flowers. Horridly heavier was the "House chow mein -- Hong Kong style" ($10), pan-fried thin egg noodles topped with seafood and shiitakes. The execution was in fact the opposite of Hong Kong style: The dish was swamped in gluey brown sauce thickened with excessive cornstarch -- and since cornstarchy liquid acts like culinary napalm, clinging hotly to whatever it touches, it cooked the seafood to rubber even as we ate.
Our recent meal was generally better than the earlier one. However, in so large a restaurant with so long a menu, it's hard to guess whether the differences were due to the current house formulas for the specific dishes we ordered, or to the skills and styles of the line-chefs who happened to be assigned those dishes on those nights. What was clear was that as the Chinese community has gravitated to newer Hong Kong-style restaurants, HKFL has drifted toward the mainstream, replacing some less-known Southern Chinese dishes with flavors more familiar in the West. This would be less conspicuous were it not accompanied by a subtle falloff in the flavors of some ingredients, and the shift in many dishes from the elegant, wok-reduced light sauces typical of Kowloon's Cantonese restaurants to the cornstarch-thickened goop of American chop suey joints.
At a third meal, via Dine One One, we opened our personal crab season with HKFL's ginger-sauce version ($18). We can't really crab about it; the crustacean was OK, cooked right and with a little foo yung stuffed in the carapace -- but (surprise!) the sauce was slightly too cornstarch-heavy. But two sheerly great and healing dishes also arrived. Flower Lounge's wor wonton soup ($9) is one of the most exquisite soups I've eaten anywhere: The thinnest pasta skins are filled with pork-shrimp meatballs, like some dim sum, and are surrounded by luscious sugar snap peas, shiitakes, and tenderly poached seafood, chicken breast, and roast pork. All float in a sublime chicken-rich broth touched by haunting, delicate vegetable flavors. Each sip sent me into Proustian reveries of childhood: The flavor recalled the broth of the famous winter melon soup at then-legendary Bobo's on New York Chinatown's "Bloody Angle." Returning to the present, we had mango pudding ($2), a gentle gelatin of perfectly ripe fresh mango pulp and juice, surrounded by lightly sweetened thin cream sauce. Like a lot of other people, TJ and I were suffering from the effects of a devastating flu; if I had to start it all over, on the first day I'd stagger to the phone and (to justify the delivery charge and tip) order four days' worth of wor wonton soup and mango puddings, in the serene conviction that such supernal potions would surely bring swift recovery. Given that a central element of Southern Chinese cuisine is the soup stock that's the basis of the sauces, whatever's happened to the rest of the food at HKFL, the wonton broth could probably cure that, too.