A Fuzhou-Style Fish Stomach Feast

I got the call from Zio a few hours before we were all to meet at Rick's chosen destination, Best Fuzhou Restaurant. "How you doing?" I asked.

There was a pause, and then Zio replied, "Not good."

It was his knee, he explained. He did something to it and had to see a doctor in Connecticut the next morning. "I'm not gonna make it tonight," he said. I didn't ask how it happened; I assumed it was in the line of duty. In Zio's case, that meant possibly squatting in a crawlspace in search of termites or carpenter ants.

It wasn't until later, after our Best Fuzhou experience that I suspected Zio might have just used the knee as an excuse not to be subjected to what we just were — perhaps he read Robert Sietsema's review of this place in The Village Voice that Rick attached to his email. I didn't. I never read reviews of restaurants until after I've dined there. Maybe if I did this time, I would have seen the review's headline, "Enjoy the Fish Stomach at Best Fuzhou: A Lower East Side Fujianese Also Kindly Peels Your Goose Feet." That might have at least tipped me off as to what to expect. As it was, I went in pretty much clueless except that I knew we were meeting in Chinatown for a regional variation on Chinese food.

Did Zio know that the aforementioned goose feet were, yes, kindly peeled, but also as inedible as the cow foot he tried to eat at Salimata, on our previous outing? Did he know that the colorfully named "do do frog's leg" that caught Rick's attention on the menu required surgical precision to remove what meat there was on the frog's skinny legs? Or that the conch that accompanied the goose feet (or web as it was listed on the menu) was as equally tough to eat? I wasn't sure. But one had to wonder.

When I arrived at the harsh fluorescently lit restaurant on the Lower East Side fringe of Chinatown, the Westchester boys, Gerry, Eugene, and Mike from Yonkers had already arrived. I told them the news about Zio and hesitated before sitting while one of the waitresses grabbed a mop and began clearing the table next to ours and the floor around it from a spilled brown sauce and stray, smashed noodles. Rick showed up soon after and even with just us five, the table seemed crammed; Zio's girth would have severely limited any elbow space between us.

With the many exotic dishes on the menu and Sietsema's apparently glowing review — the waitress, who spoke almost no English, proudly showed us a copy of it — Best Fuzhou seemed a natural spot for our group. For his part though, Eugene was immediately skeptical. Maybe the menu was a little too exotic. Studying it carefully and bypassing fish head with bean curd, crispy jellyfish skin, duck kidney with cauliflower, goose intestine with tender leek, stir-fried pig stomach, and other intriguing options, he finally settled on the safe, hot and spicy fish fillet.

On the other end of the spectrum, for Gerry, the more exotic the better and he gambled on eel with black bean sauce, which carried no price, only the dubious "S.P" (seasonal price) next to it. To her credit, our waitress, in her struggling English, was able to make clear that the price for the eel in black bean sauce that was evidently in season was $28. Gerry hesitated, but only for a moment, before nodding that it was ok, despite overshooting the $20 food limit stated in our very loose food group bylaws.

I tried to find a happy medium; something a bit out of the ordinary, but not a stretch like do do frogs legs, Rick's choice. I settled on the clams with pan-fried noodles. As it turned out, the rice noodles, lightly fried and speckled with strips of clam, was the only dish we all enthusiastically enjoyed.

The same couldn't be said for Sietsema's recommendation, water melon soup with fish stomach, which arrived in a big bowl and was gingerly distributed into little bowls by our waitress, who added dollops of a blood-red liquid I assumed was chile oil. After sampling the soup with the mysterious red condiment, there was no spicy kick — no discernible taste at all. Red dye? Fish blood? As I write this I'm still not sure what it was. The clear soup had chunks of water melon, a white, bland vegetable that's nothing like the watermelon we're accustomed to, surrounded by bits of fish stomach that was reminiscent of the egg whites floating in the opaque broth. Eugene could only manage a few sips. Only Gerry dared attempt a second bowl. And from there it got worse.

Mike from Yonkers, speaking loudly so he could be heard above the constant parade of big black garbage bags dragged on a noisy dolly through the small restaurant and out to the street, proclaimed to all who might think to listen that he never ordered the goose web. But the proof was on the menu and, unfortunately on our table. Again, it was Gerry who was the only one who could make any headway of the truly impenetrable peeled goose foot. Eugene would not even attempt a nibble and when the do do frogs legs arrived in a thick brown sauce, he picked up the serving spoon, noticed a few mushrooms surrounding the skimpy frogs' legs, and then put the spoon back down with a disgusted grunt. For a man who portends to have a worldly appetite, Eugene has an unusual aversion to mushrooms.

The final dish to crowd our not very appetizing table was the "seasonal" eel. After clearing a few dishes, the waitress found a space for the platter in the middle of table positioned so the eel's head and cold, dark beady eyes were staring menacingly at Eugene. A few bites of the tough, bone-riddled eel in black bean sauce were more than enough for me... and everyone else including Gerry. This particular "S.P" delicacy was definitely wasted on us. Thankfully, we filled up on what on the menu were described as oyster pancakes, but were more like a slightly salty Chinese version of the deep-fried Mexican churro.

"We're not having dessert, are we?" Eugene muttered once the plates were cleared from our table. Maybe Zio, if he was in attendance, would have insisted on trying the Fuzhou-style eight treasure rice offered for dessert. For those of us who did attend, however, even eight treasures were not enough to entice us to try anything else Fuzhou style.