"He can take one bite of anything," she says, "and tell you exactly what ingredients are in it. Then he can go to the kitchen and make the same dish perfectly. He has talent."
Kai Shing and Michelle Lai opened their first restaurant, Asian Fusion in North Lauderdale, last February. It's a place to tug the heartstrings of any semisensitive foodie. You've seen it all before: painstaking decoration including plants, lacquered tables, and carefully placed bamboo screens stuck next to a Publix out in the middle of freaking nowhere. The food's fantastic. And it's often a ghost town on Saturday night at 8 o'clock.
But swallow the lump in your throat and head for that mostly empty glow. At Asian Fusion, Michelle Lai's at the front counter, merrily chatting away with a sated customer on his way out -- her new best friend. Michelle loves to talk as much as I love to eat.
"That's a crab," she told me, pointing at an animal roughly the size of a manhole cover. The servers had ferried this thing out to the family at the next table; they were standing around, half proud, half curious, to see what the family would do with it. I kid you not. It looked like an extra from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
"It is not a crab," I said. But I knew she wasn't lying. For a place this size, the quality of the food is ridiculous. Shrimp are big, fat, and juicy -- a full pound goes in every order. Whole trout look like they were just hooked from some misty backyard river. You can call ahead and order an entire Forbidden City Duck. And everything's so cheap you can eat and eat and feel like you're spending Monopoly money. Somebody needs to bust this juicy secret wide open -- I can't eat this much ginger and scallion catfish all by myself.
The Lai family jumped off the fast train, metaphorically speaking -- kids, baggage, and all -- as it sped through North Lauderdale, and they deserve all the success they can handle. Michelle tells me that Kai Shing grew up in a wealthy extended family headed by his grandfather, a celebrated Chinese general. The household was so big, it amounted to an entire village: A hundred people sat down together for lunch and dinner every single day. By the time he escaped to New York City, around 1970, Kai Shing wasn't much fazed by the idea of cooking for a crowd. Feed a hundred hungry Chinese relatives and the world is your oyster.
And then he spent 30 years turning out noodles and dumplings at the infamous Golden Unicorn in New York's Chinatown, a place vast, sprawling, and, at least on weekends, practically psychotic. It's a name synonymous with the house specialty, dim sum. Golden Unicorn is three floors of total mayhem; on busy days, 1,000 people sometimes eat at once. Staff relays information via walkie-talkies. Servers make hundreds of trips an hour pushing steaming carts full of bean buns, spare ribs, shark's fin dumplings, and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. The help runs the gamut from phenomenally rude to barely civil -- they'll sharply tell you exactly how much you should tip them if you look as if you need the advice.
Now, after 30 years of turning out beef balls at warp speed for family banquets at Chinese New Year, it seems Lai wants to create a restaurant as far from Golden Unicorn as he can get, and I'm not talking only in literal miles. At Asian Fusion, we did find a trio of dim sum dishes served as appetizers -- luscious little dumplings, soft as velvet, stuffed with pork, shrimp, glistening mushrooms, and crunchy vegetables ($3.95); the Fusion spring rolls filled with "infused" chicken ($2.95), and a sticky, scrumptious mess of boneless spare ribs ($5.95) that had us licking our fingers. But otherwise, the Lai's new restaurant is smallish, the service is personable, and the menu is all creative, all the time.
So where did Lai learn to cook stuff like this delicious sizzling baked conch ($6.95)? Not in the general's household, I'll bet, and definitely not at the Unicorn. Chopped conch, clams, scallops, and shrimp, flavored with onions, fennel, and bits of coconut; tossed in a rich curry sauce; and baked inside a conch shell, this dish has the comfort-food texture of a savory pudding and the aromas of Malaysia and Southern India. You'll dig every last drop out of the whorled shell with a spoon. You know you're done when you can hear the sound of the ocean in that picked-clean vessel.
Lai makes shit up, his wife confesses. "We're the guinea pigs. He's always trying new things on us. He loves to create. So he'll add one thing, take away one thing, until he gets it just right. Even on his day off, he's cooking, cooking, cooking all day long. I have to call up my friends and say, 'You want to come over for dinner? We have too much... '"
All the other "Asian fusion" places I know in the Broward/Palm Beach area are upscale palaces as bent on impressing you with décor as with culinary innovations. Depending on your tolerance for gimmickry, the three-story ceilings, golden Buddhas, and undulating banquets might distract you for two seconds from the price you're paying to bask in all that rose-colored lighting. But this Asian Fusion is as bare-bones and brightly lit as your average Chinese takeout. If you're looking for convoluted saketinis and cotton candy parfaits, look elsewhere. The wine list is disconcertingly brief -- a handful of Publix-style wines served by the glass.
The food, though, is not simple. Lai loves to serve things in the shell -- conch, crab, mango shells, even hollowed-out half pineapples. Things come to the table looking beautiful. Our mango relish chicken ($10.95), juicy chunks of breast meat stir-fried and tossed in mango relish, came nestled in mango skins and topped with fresh herbs. Pretty as it looked, even for this critic's highly developed sweet tooth, this dish started out well but turned cloying after a half-dozen bites; it could have used an element of sour or bitter to offset the high sugar content. Lai also makes chicken marinated in lemongrass and served in a pineapple shell ($10.95), minced spiced chicken with bamboo shoots wrapped in lettuce ($11.95), and a Thai basil chicken cooked in a clay pot ($10.95).
My whole steamed trout in lemongrass ($12.95) was a little scary, only because it came wobbling out on a tray carried by a very small woman. The metal pan was bubbling over a lit Bunsen burner, and it was a serious production -- entailing many near mishaps -- to get pan to table without tipping its scalding contents into our laps. Nice to have it hot! This very tender, mild trout was delicious over lemongrass-infused noodles with tomato, basil, and onion. It was hard to serve, though -- they might want to rethink the whole lit burner thing -- we finally had to ask to have it put out, a request that prompted whispered conferences and murky looks between servers and kitchen staff. If you like trout, it might be safer to sample the crispy whole fried trout with black bean sauce ($12.95).
I'd like to eat my way up and down this menu. If I get the chance, I'll start with the "famous five-spice soft shell crabs" ($15) and the salt and pepper baked scallops ($12.95). Then I'll go for the volcano shrimp with the chef's secret spicy whiskey sauce ($12.95) and a preordered whole roast duck ($28) with hoisin sauce and pancakes. And I'm going to leave room for dessert (ask for Lai's mango pudding recipe and he'll appear at your table, hoist open his gigantic recipe book, and intone: "Take four dozen mangos, three pounds of sugar..."). The warm coconut Malaysian soup ($3.95) is a sensual, healthy treat of tapioca pearls, mung beans, and sweet potatoes.
"Fusion comes from the word confusion," Michelle Lai tells me. "It means there are many ingredients and no boundaries." Well, maybe. But there's not so much confusion going on in this kitchen as there is a jolly willingness to experiment freely, cutting a wide swath through Asian culinary traditions -- and I love that. There's never a dull moment on this menu, just plenty of infectious joie de vivre. You get the feeling that after 30 years in a sweltering Chinatown kitchen and those hundreds of thousands of black bean buns, Kai Shing is flying high.