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Shanghai Express 

Check the specials list for surprises at Fountain Court

Wednesday, Apr 21 2004
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There's a kind of food writing that I absolutely hate, which is when the express purpose of the piece seems to be to tell you about some marvelous dish that you can't have, or some extraordinary restaurant that you'll never get a reservation at (much of the writing about Ferran Adria's El Bulli in Spain has taken this tack: The place is nearly inaccessible, closed six months of the year, and it's booked up until 2009, so good luck!), or some wonderful place that's closing so you'll never get to eat there -- besides, it's not what it used to be.

I say this because I am about to write something that sounds a whole lot like the first example I mention -- the marvelous dish that you can't have -- but not with that intention. The dish I stumbled upon, previously unknown to me, is no longer going to be available where I had it. In fact, it was barely available when I did. I cite it not because it was overwhelmingly delicious -- a lot of things I had at the same meal were much tastier. But that it was available at all says volumes about the restaurant, and has a lot to do with why I'm currently infatuated with Fountain Court, a modest-in-appearance Shanghai place on Clement.

Robert and I went in for dim sum lunch, partly to try to understand the difference between Shanghai-style dim sum and everyday Cantonese dim sum and partly because we were hungry. A list of specials was propped up by the entrance, and Robert's attention was caught by an entry that read "Shepherd's purse with steamed fresh bamboo shoots." He wondered what that could be. I said, airily, that it was probably like the appetizer called "beggar's purse" -- that is, a crepe with something inside it, tied up with a chive to look like a hobo's sack. The fancy New York restaurant the Quilted Giraffe (now closed, so you'll never get to eat there!) used to serve one filled with sour cream and caviar. I was more interested in another item on the list, the pork belly with fresh pea shoots, anyway.

But Robert persevered. He asked our server, and one of the owners came to the table and told us that shepherd's purse is a kind of weed she knew from China that she'd noticed growing wild on the farm that supplies the restaurant with organic chickens. So she asked the farmers to gather it for the eatery. It's a seasonal plant; Fountain Court had had it on the menu for a few days, and when that batch was gone that would be it until next spring. The kitchen used it to sauce the bamboo shoots.

There was no way we weren't going to order that dish, alongside our Shanghai juicy steamed buns (also known as soup dumplings, but "juicy" describes them well), steamed sablefish dumplings, and beef pan-fried bread. The shepherd's purse arrived. The chunks of bamboo shoots were pale and tender, coated with the grassy, bright-green, puréed leaf: The effect was pleasant, if not earthshaking, and the bamboo shoots were as important to the dish as the unfamiliar little weed. I exclaimed more over the delicious dim sum, which benefited from being steamed to our order rather than hauled around huge rooms on carts -- delicate indeed, and subtly different from the ones I'd been eating lately. Or more than subtly different: The beef pan-fried bread, for example, turned out to be flaky sesame flat bread, split and stuffed with a strong, dark ground-beef filling and fried. Slightly greasy, delightfully crunchy, absolutely fresh. The sablefish dumplings were equally interesting; they tasted kinda Jewish. The pork dumplings were vivid with ginger. "This is one of Peter's favorite places," Robert said. "We ought to have called him and asked him what he recommends."

I looked at the shepherd's purse: There were just a few shoots left. Robert and I had the same idea at the same time, and we motioned our server over, asked for another order to go, and returned our attention to the dim sum. The server came back in just a few minutes. "I'm sorry," she said, "we've run out of the shepherd's purse." We looked at each other. We'd just had the last order of a dish we'd never heard of and quite possibly would never see again. Having the dish available was delightful in itself, and it spoke to the way Fountain Court is run.

We took the leftover shoots in sauce to Peter; he was pleased, if not overwhelmed, in just about the same way I'd been. "The Fountain Court is one of Anita's favorite places, too," he told me. "Let's go there!" I replied, in predictable fashion.

But before we organized that trip, I ended up at Fountain Court again, almost accidentally. Pierre was in San Francisco for a few days, and a group jaunt up to the Napa Valley was planned, inevitably on the only day in a raft of unseasonably sunny ones when the heavens opened. We slogged around the Niebaum-Coppola Winery in the mud, pausing to quaff glasses of rosso and claret and admire the snazzy museum (a genuine Tucker automobile! Extraordinary costumes from Dracula! The actual boots and cowboy hat Robert Duvall wore when he said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," in Apocalypse Now!) and equally snazzy gift shop (where you can buy examples of "Francis' favorite notebooks" -- Rhodia, imported from France -- and "Francis' favorite pen" -- a Caran d'Ache ballpoint, imported from Switzerland). Although Thomas insisted on swinging by Taylor's Refresher in St. Helena for a blue cheese burger on the way home, the rest of us were interested in a real meal, so we drove directly to Fountain Court, calling a couple of friends to meet us there (in the interest of ordering lots of food).

We got a big round table near the back of the long room. (Next to us was a large family with a DVD player on the table to distract its youngest member. All day long, traveling with this group of movie buffs, I'd fantasized about the day when we'd illustrate our anecdotes by pulling out just such a toy and cuing up a minidisc. "What's he watching?" I asked. "Treasure Planet.") We ordered Shanghai pot-au-feu, baby shrimp with pea greens, pork belly with fresh leeks, a crab from the tank (which our server suggested changing from ginger-and-scallions, my favorite version, to black bean sauce -- "We're famous for our black bean sauce"), aromatic chicken, and Shanghai pepper duck. When I suggested either pork ribs braised with roasted scallions or a dish called "Shanghai spareribs," described as meaty pork ribs in brown sauce with spinach, Pierre countered with his preference for the pork intestines fire pot, pig innards with salted mustard greens and soft tofu in chile and garlic sauce. We went with the innards.

It was an amazing meal. The kitchen sent us some crisp little vegetarian appetizers, like flattened spring rolls, on the house. The Shanghai pot-au-feu was ladled from a hot pot into soup bowls, the broth full of petite pork ribs, smoky ham, tofu sheets folded and tied into knots, bamboo shoots, and greens. Cascades of tiny pink shrimp sat atop the glistening pea shoots, stir-fried with a bit of chicken broth. The pork belly, like thick-sliced Canadian bacon, rested on sautéed leeks that seemed creamy. The sticky, garlicky black bean sauce that coated the disjointed crab was quite wonderful, and the crab itself so good that I found myself wishing we'd ordered a ginger-and-scallion one -- for compare-and-contrast. The chicken, redolent of the five-spice broth (cloves, star anise, fennel, cinnamon, and pepper -- the cloves and star anise predominate) it'd been poached in, had been lightly fried and chopped up into meaty chunks, and came served with crunchy shrimp chips. The steamed pepper duck, also lightly fried, was accompanied by fat steamed buns and plum sauce: We split the buns, painted them with the thick fruity sauce, and tucked shreds of meat inside. As I could have predicted, Pierre and I were the only ones who dived into the pork intestines fire pot with alacrity, especially after the server mentioned that it was prepared with congealed pig's blood. It was quite a bit heartier than the other dishes on the table, but not without its mildly gamy charms.

I hastily ordered a few desserts, all of which proved to be delightful: a hill of mashed sweetened taro root crowned with chopped dates; "Eight Precious Sweet Rice," molded sticky rice with chopped, preserved fruits and nuts; chewy dumplings filled with sesame paste and dusted with chopped peanuts; and the best almond custard, a warm, fragile, ethereal, shaky little pudding that I could have dispatched all by myself in a couple of minutes. But somehow everybody got a taste, and agreed that it was the best almond custard they'd ever had.

After only two meals, I was totally smitten with Fountain Court. In a city drenched with wonderful, diverse Asian restaurants, this is one of the best. And even if the place isn't serving shepherd's purse when you go, there'll be something equally interesting.

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Meredith Brody

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