If you're going to Restaurant Furenzu soon, do it at night. The three-month-old restaurant is smack-dab in one of Emeryville's new condo-building rows -- and what a row it is. At lunchtime the street crashes and whirs with construction sounds and the restaurant's sole window looks out onto the romantic promise of scaffolding and Porta-Pottis. Once the sun sets and the contractors head home, the mood turns forlorn. As you drive down Adeline, peering out your car window, Furenzu's small sign glimmers out of the forest of beams and tar paper like a neighborhood dive making a valiant last stand against gentrification.
Actually, Furenzu is preceding it: When you enter the tiny wedge of a restaurant, the whoosh of air from the door sets all the tea lights on a dozen tables aflicker, their glow reflected dully off the copper plating on the walls. Above the copper is a swath of rich bronze paint and pre-Mao posters of ladies proffering Chinese cigarettes. Saddle-seat stools oppose the banquette that lines the back wall, and in the center of the room stands an ornate Chinese table set with candles and a spray of flowers. You're in a jewel box -- a boudoir, even.
Owner Cynthia Fung used to be a software engineer, but has been looking to try her hand at the restaurant biz for years. Her friends were already coming over to her place every weekend to see what she could cook up for them. Fung eventually took over a little Chinese restaurant, and her friends helped her decorate it. In honor of them, she named the restaurant "Furenzu," a slangy Japanese word for "friends" that also sounds like her Chinese name, Fung Yanshuen. Fung shops for organic produce and sustainably raised meat at the Berkeley Bowl, then uses it to prepare what she calls "new wave Asian tapas cuisine."
New-wave Asian is the cuisine that no one wants us to call "Asian fusion" anymore, a culinary movement that continues to spread and sometimes evolve. These days it's mostly the provenance of Asian-American chefs, some professionally trained in multiple cuisines, some not, and their success rate continues to be spotty. I ate two meals at Furenzu. After the first, I almost didn't come back. After the second, I was eager to return. It appears to be a matter of what you order.
At my first meal, the cultural mix on the plates looked like it belonged in a glossy magazine but came off as awkward. Sugary, too: Honey ribs with fried Thai basil leaves and curly mustard greens, served in a miniature wok, tasted as if the crispy short ribs had been candied instead of braised with honey. The baby greens might have offset some of the sugar had the sharp, raw leaves not been tossed into the syrup at the last minute. We'd ordered a duck flatbread with mango salsa for contrast, but it tasted almost as sweet. The duck, roasted Chinese style to produce moist meat and cracklingly good skin, was shredded and sprinkled, along with lots of chopped mango, red onion, and cilantro, on a wheat-flour crepe. Think mu shu pancake. Or raw flour tortilla. I mostly tasted fruit.
The meal had started off with a cute trick: "shrimp in a nest," prawns wrapped in skinny egg noodles and deep-fried so that the noodles crisped into a lacy shell before the shrimp had time to toughen up. A salad of frisée, Chinese sausage, and two poached quail eggs, which looked as if it would be just as clever, badly aped one of my favorite French-bistro classics. The French serve up the frilly chicory in a warm vinaigrette with salt pork, a poached chicken egg, and lots of cracked black pepper. In both versions, the salad is a performance that begins the moment you spear into the eggs and their creamy yolks gush over the greens. But in Furenzu's salad the greens were undressed, the two quail egg yolks too tiny to be tasted, and the already sweet Chinese sausage sautéed in a sugary sauce.
Yet Fung and her waiter were so warm, and the room so lovely -- the kind of place where you should conduct an illicit affair -- that I gave it another shot. On my second pass through the menu, it was as if I had already identified all the sinkholes, danced around them, and emerged with a delicate, even soulful, meal.
Perhaps the secret of our success the second night was that we focused on Chinese techniques and ingredients, albeit treated in novel ways. From the shiitake mushrooms stuffed with ground shrimp and pork, a close riff on that dim sum favorite, to the poached tilapia (a mild white freshwater fish) that practically melted over sautéed pea sprouts, with a finessed soy-wine sauce pooled around the fillet, everything this time was in harmony.
The kitchen made just the tiniest flaw in one dish: A strip of ribeye was seared a luxurious medium-rare, the edges forming a brittle, caramelized crust in the pan. The chef drizzled oils infused with chives, chiles, and orange zest around the beef, enrobing it in their subtle aromas. All it needed was salt.
But there were no missteps with the transparent bean-thread noodles stir-fried with crisp slices of mo qua, a zucchini-like squash with the louche English name of "hairy melon." The gossamer noodles, though, had a robust flavor, thanks to barely visible specks of salty Chinese ham. The same interplay between earthy and ethereal marked the steamed tofu, a bamboo cup containing fresh tofu, lighter than any custard, under a layer of ground black mushrooms and pungent dried shrimp.
Furenzu offers a few ultra-simple desserts, such as chocolate fondue with fresh fruit and ginger milk custard. The menu asks "Why not fry the ice cream?" and answers with another cute trick, a plump round deep-fried mochi stuffed with red-bean-flavored ice cream. The rice-flour dumpling crusts up quickly, leaving the ice cream inside solid.
The neighborhood hasn't quite figured out what to do with Furenzu yet. During my two dinners, passers-by kept popping in to ask, "What kind of food do you serve?" They'd scan the menu and its prices, then politely excuse themselves. One even murmured that she had hoped for takeout. If Fung can hold on until the block fills up, and use that time to solidify her menu, she's sure to find her tables filled with condo-dwellers -- just the kind of audience that will love the sort of restaurant that calls itself "new wave Asian tapas cuisine."