Review: Yao Fuzi Cuisine
Chinese cuisine, with rare exceptions, is a mongrel of conformity in these parts: a risk-averse version of the intensely risky food. It's transmogrified, morphed, tamed and sanitized, made pliant and meek. Sometimes you can barely recognize the stuff. Oh, there are the disheveled spaces here and there, hollowed out of strip malls, where you can get the sow's ears and turkey intestines and duck tongues and tripe and all of those things that wouldn't dare show up in lo mein or mu shu.
Yao Fuzi Cuisine was born of the yearnings of people who have traveled to China and were entranced by the cuisine, anxious to retrieve its sensual mementos once back in Texas. "They couldn't find it," says Chris Yao. Thus Chris, along with his father, Alex, opened Yao Fuzi. In a strip mall. In Plano.
Yao Fuzi is an ode to "Shanghainese," the cuisine of that highly Westernized and stylized port city Shanghai, facing the East China Sea. Shanghainese is a whisper of a cuisine, especially when compared with the fulminations of Hunan, the fragrant and prickly sensations of Sichuan and the heartiness of the cuisines of Beijing. Example: Lamb with scallions is a simple cobweb with strips of lamb and strands of scallion resting in a brown, soy-based sauce with strings of caramelized onion rounding out its depth. Nothing is there to blur the racy sweetness of the lamb.
Alex Yao earned his stripes over the griddles and burners at the Shanghai Hilton. He is the culinary brains behind Yao Fuzi, the keeper of the secrets locked in sauces and cooking techniques, confidences even his son isn't privy to. Loosely translated, Yao Fuzi means father and son Yao, and the pair traversed a strange, disjointed trail from Shanghai. Chris had never crossed Shanghai's municipal boundaries before he found himself in Topeka, Kansas, drawn by family and not speaking a lick of English. He was educated there. Family drew him again to Plano.
Lithe and subdued, Shanghai cuisine is characterized by sweetness in a manner just short of liberal. It counteracts the fats, softens the oils, recalibrates and soothes the stomach. You can taste these sugary shadows in Shanghai's rendition of kimchi, the classic Korean condiment of cabbage fermented to a sultry stench and raced with brine, garlic, scallions and the dust of a chili pepper until the heat burns away any misgivings over the funk. Shanghai kimchi is far more restrained; the strands of cabbage are crisper and quieter with sweetness on the finish.
This is the recurrent invocation of Shanghainese; subtle in heat, lithe in weight, elegant in composition. Even when deep-fried, the showings can be remarkable. Whole duck is sliced, coated in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried. Not a smear of oil sheens the fingers. Oils refuse to trample duck fats. Soft-shell crab, cut up into spidery brittle clusters, is varnished in a thick sauce of soy, oyster sauce, ginger, garlic and peppers. Cucumbers garnish, even cleanse, its sweet spicy crispness, allowing rich marine milieu to permeate.
While father mans the kitchen and son charges the front of the house, tending to guests and the aquarium of deep orange jellybean parrot cichlids, these distinctions sometimes blur. Chris Yao is a skilled sushi chef, having honed his skills at Café Miso in Addison and Steel Restaurant & Lounge in Oak Lawn. The residues appear on the Yao Fuzi menu: miso soup, edamame, halibut tempura and a seaweed salad to rival the best found in Japanese restaurants in these parts. You'll see it in the spicy tuna summer rolls, angle-cut cones holding strips of raw tuna and a fluff of greens and pieces of Asian pear, loosely bound up in negligee sheets of rice paper.
Some menu entrants are unabashed Americanizations—the appeasement Chinese that is the necessity of commerce. There are chicken lettuce wraps, those gimmicks P.F. Chang's turned into its own rap. There is fried calamari laced with curry powder, lo mein with beef, and sweet and sour chicken.
But you can order off-menu too. Chew on duck gizzard, boiled, marinated in Shang Hai Hua wine (fermented from rice) sauce and sliced into chewy ovals, as dry and leathery as fine salami. Beef tender, meat from the cattle leg, is slow-cooked for four hours in five-spice and sliced thin into dark purple chewy sheets with rivulets of fat woven into curving loops. It's like desiccated corned beef.
Yao Fuzi is an attractive ensemble with clean, clear lines and a diffident clash of color—deep beige suede chairs, textured reds, golds, blacks—over hardwood floors and under a black ceiling with exposed ductwork and support beams. It's the perfect strain of soothing elegance to match the cuisine's whispered din. Dim sum-ish soup dumplings, blended of shrimp and pork, are an Americanized hybrid by necessity. In Shanghai, the dumplings are a mesh of pork and hair crab. "In America they don't have hair crab," Chris says. So, he substitutes shrimp to create these supple sacks, sticky to the touch, moist to the chew, with a bowl of vinegar with shavings of ginger for dipping.
Among the most popular dishes in Shanghai is stir-fried shrimp with West Lake tea leaf, a simple dish of shrimp herbed with tea. There was trouble sourcing the gulf shrimp. They must possess perfect texture. They must be crisp. They must be tender. They must have a snap under dental pressure. But they must not be chewy or mushy. The Yaos found their bull's-eye.
Flesh for the jellyfish and scallions is sliced from the head and then marinated in saltwater and blanched for 10 seconds and served with daikon radish. Lobster with scallops and bamboo topped with clusters of smelt roe tests the kitchen's commitment to precision. The difficulty is in preparation of the sauce, a composite of egg white and a touch of cream. The temperature must be perfect. The time under heat must be exact. If these two measures stray, the egg whites will brown and become listless, refusing to puff-up and fluff, stripping the slightly sweet sauce of its textural levity. The sulfurous breath marries perfectly with the tint of marine.
Beef tripe with cilantro, strips of pink bovine stomach sliced into feathery strips freshened with sprouts, is refreshingly crunchy. West Lake beef soup—egg white, tofu, scallions and minces of tenderloin in a rich chicken stock, delivers a stinging slap of white pepper on the front of the palate. It comes with a dish of vinegar to invigorate it, but limit this to a couple of drops. More will strip the soup of its delicate balance.
Finish with sesame rice balls, cores of sesame paste bound in sticky rice flour. They float like the whites of eyes in a clear warm broth, unleashing a wheeze of sweetness when crushed between the teeth. But while the menu speaks in appropriate whisper-ese, Yao Fuzi Shanghainese should be hollered out all over.
4757 W. Park Blvd., No. 108, Plano, 214-473-9269. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.