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May 2, 2013 11:10 PM

Chowdown at Fey Restaurant [Menlo Park]

Fifteen hounds just spent an enjoyable dinner at the recently opened Fey Restaurant in Menlo Park. The jaunt was organized by our intrepid leader hyperbowler who had dropped by earlier in the week to discover the day's specials. As others have mentioned, Fey has some connection with Little Sichuan in San Mateo and the now-closed Classic Sichuan in Millbrae, as I recognized the lady owner upon walking in since I was a frequent diner at the other two restaurants.

Despite its petite and drab looking exterior, the restaurant is surprisingly long and elegant inside, with booths in front and round banquet tables in back. Our group took two of the tables in the way back; I'm listing the dishes at what I'll call Table #1 and hope someone from Table #2 will chime in on what they ordered.

Table #1:

#26 Five Delight Combo Cold Platter ($23.95)
#42 Smoked Tofu Pork with Sichuan Pickles ($9.50)
#48 Xinjiang Fried Cumin Lamb ($11.95)
#134 Spicy Sichuan Cold Noodles with Minced Pork ($7.95)
#150 Sichuan Dry Cooked Chicken Wings ($9.95)
#154 Steamed Powdery Tender Spareribs ($9.95)
#158 Spicy Boiled Tender Fish ($11.95)
Special: Ribs with Stir Fried Sichuan Salty Long Beans ($13.95)
Special: Pea Sprouts with Garlic ($12.95)
Special: Chongqing Dry Pot Yellow Croaker ($15.95)
Special: Sichuan Twice Cooked Tofu (forgot to charge us)
Dessert: Sesame Rice Balls ($8.95)
Dessert: Golden Red Bean Cake ($3 each)

Photos of each dish are here:

The noodles came out first, bland and severely lacking in any ma or la. Fortunately this gave us the opportunity to tell the waitress that we wanted the rest of our dishes to be spicy, really spicy! While the subsequent dishes improved in both the heat and numbing department, nothing was anything close to spicy except for in the yellow croaker dish.

I'll let the others chime in first with their comments on each dish. Service was slow; it took us almost an hour after sitting down before we were able to order. At slightly before 7pm on a Thursday, our group was one of the first to arrive but the restaurant quickly filled up afterwards. That said, due to the slow service, we were one of the last to leave a little after 9.30. Other than being slow, our waitress was quite helpful, suggesting we order the twice-cooked tofu dish (one of our favorites) and helping us with other ordering suggestions.

This was my first Chowdown in many years and it was great to see old faces and meet new ones. While the meal at Fey was middle-of-the-road fine with its muted spicing and more mainstream flavors, it's a great option for that stretch of the Peninsula which is severely lacking in regional Chinese cuisine.

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  1. Too late to post impressions, but here are photos from the second table:

    1 Reply
    1. re: Jefferson

      Table 2, in the house!

      Thanks to all who could make it--- I had a great time! I'll let others weigh in until I have a chance to make comments later this weekend:

      #26 Five Delight Combo Cold Platter ($23.95)
      #42 Smoked Tofu Pork with Sichuan Pickles ($9.50)
      #48 Xinjiang Fried Cumin Lamb ($11.95)
      #134 Spicy Sichuan Cold Noodles with Minced Pork ($7.95)
      #158 Spicy Boiled Tender Fish ($11.95)
      Family Private Kitchen Ribs
      Ma-Po Tofu Pork
      Eggplant Sichuan ("fish fragrant eggplant")
      Stir-fried sichuan salty long bean
      Chongking spicy boil fish filet

      Special: Pea Sprouts with Garlic ($12.95)
      Special: Chongqing Dry Pot Yellow Croaker ($15.95)
      Special: Hunan smoked pork and fish ($15.95)
      Dessert: Sesame Rice Balls ($8.95)
      Dessert: Golden Red Bean Cake ($3 each)

      += $28/person with tax and tip

    2. I want to like Fey. I really want to like Fey. It's close to home and so convenient but the food just manages to miss. Not terrible by any means but toned down enough to make it, in general, muted, bland and somewhat boring.

      There were some good dishes. The croaker was nice and hot with an interesting texture on the fish. The twice cooked tofu was indeed yummy. The tofu was crisped up perfectly. The spicy boiled fish almost reached spiciness but the sauce had depth and body.

      Other offerings disappointed. The powdery spareribs were a miss for me. They had an unpleasant gummy texture that got worse as the dish sat. No textural contrast with the squash, either. I've had this much better elsewhere. The ribs with long beans were basically deep fried ribs set atop a bed of diced up beans. The beans didn't have enough oomph to counter the rich meat and the dish didn't come together.

      As mentioned above, the service was very slow and we all pounced on the first dish that came out -- cold noodles with minced pork -- even though it was a boring, uninspired version.

      I think Fey will hang in there for a while given the lack of other options close by. But if you're in the mood for flavorful Sicuan cuisine be prepared to beg your server to make it hot and it may require multiple visits to let them know you're serious.

      Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing and my table-mates for a fun evening.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ChewChew

        I'm there with you guys. Someone needs to talk to these people and see if they can up the spice (not heat!) level. If they expect "home kitchen", then need home kitchen vibrancy. It feels like the cook(s) has the chops but isn't pushing it? Or do they really lack the ability?

      2. I've been following the discussions on Fey for a while here and have been wavering between trying it and not since reviews have been pretty mixed.

        What do you guys/gals consider to be the best Sichaun restaurant in the Bay Area? I've really been missing great Sichaun food since moving here from San Diego which despite the severe lack of good Cantonese food had one of the best Sichaun restaurants I've ever eaten at (Ba Ren).

        5 Replies
        1. re: mliew

          What part of the bay are you talking about, and how about a new thread for that? There's a bunch of "usual suspects" like Panda Country Kitchen, Spices, China Village (when it was open), Da Sichuan, Happy Golden Bowl, Chef Zhao, Crouching Tiger but they're very very scattered geographically. I have a couple I keep to myself like Sichuan Delight in San Mateo. I don't have a single place that stands out anymore --- more like a broad number of pretty good places and I'm still searching for a go-to.

          If you haven't tried some of these, and Fey's near your house, I think it's worth a single meal. Location has showed up multiple times as being very favorable for Fey.

          1. re: bbulkow

            Pretty much anywhere except North Bay would be doable if it was truly outstanding. I realize it's getting off the subject though so I apologize for derailing the thread. I've been to Spicy Empire in San Mateo and while it was solid it didn't blow me away. I guess I was hoping there would be one place that really stands out above the rest (sort of like Koi Palace for dim sum) but perhaps that's not the case when it comes to Sichaun food around here.

            1. re: bbulkow

              Sichuan Delight in Redwood City closed some time ago. Did it move to San Mateo? Not finding any info on it.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Sorry. Little Sichuan, corner of 4th and Ellsworth, right near the drager's. The dish that blew me away there involved a bamboo box.

            2. re: mliew

              mliew, quite a few serious Sichuanese restaurants have come and gone here in the Bay Area since that cuisine invaded and to some extent conquered the United States in the 1970s. (According to a 2011? thread in another CH board, parts of the US missed the first invasion but have been catching up.)

              In the 1980s at least one Sichuanese restaurant was widely prominent (in Chron and I think even national media), it's one of a few I've mourned. But you can also see from other recent threads (including for Chef Ma in SJ, Chef Zhao Bistro in Mountain View) that new ones with old-country cooks continue to open.

            3. After hearing many good reports about Fey it was great to finally try it in with fellow Chowhounds.

              My favorites were the chicken wings, spicy boiled tender fish, and twice cooked tofu. The wings were small but flavorful and pleasantly spicy. This was one of the few dishes with a fair amount of heat, though none were really spicy. The fish was tender with good flavor and a tasty sauce.

              The combo cold platter items were all pretty good. I especially enjoyed the jellyfish texture and flavor, and the tendon.

              My first bites of the tofu pork seemed just OK, but once I started tasting the pickles I really liked this dish. Less interesting but still good was the cumin lamb. This is not the street food style of cumin lamb skewers with lots of cumin and very little lamb cooked to a crisp. That style of cumin lamb at places like Beijing Restaurant leaves me wishing I could taste more lamb. Fey’s cumin lamb, though fairly thinly sliced, allows more of the lamb flavor and texture to come through and the vegetables and sauce add to the dish.

              I thought the ribs with long beans were OK as long as you got a lot of beans with each bite, otherwise the ribs were plain.

              The yellow croaker’s flavor was fishy and not especially pleasing and there was very little meat. I have had scrawny fish prepared in ways that made them really tasty but this dish didn’t do much for me. However I didn’t get much of the sauce which seemed to be what pleased some of the others. The Powdery Tender Spareribs had a squishy texture and not much flavor.

              The sesame rice balls came in a rice wine soup and was very similar to Little Shanghai’s version, but with fewer and larger mochi balls and thicker soup. I really enjoyed it (I’m a black sesame addict) but think the Little Shanghai version is a bit better. The red bean cake was pretty good though small.

              As others have mentioned the service was very slow but the waitstaff were very helpful when they did grace us with their presence.

              I really dislike the acoustics at Fey’s. The surfaces are hard and noise ricochets off the walls. Even though there was a very large distance separating us from the other tables the din was so loud it diminished my enjoyment of the meal.

              Thanks to hyperbowler for an excellent job organizing the event including keeping us informed about corkage fees (there is none!), etc. Also thanks to PekoePeony for handling the ordering at table #1 and bringing the plum wine and sake (the mild sweetness of the plum wine went really well with the Sichuan cuisine), to hyperbowler for contributing the beer, and to my fellow hounds for their entertaining company at the meal.

              1. Here's my $.03. Eating with other hounds was lots of fun, but I had higher hopes for the food:

                #134 Spicy Sichuan Cold Noodles with Minced Pork : This was the first dish that came out. It had a tiny amount of heat, but despite the Chinese name of the dish indicating it would have numbing spice, I couldn't detect any. Kind of a boring dish overally, but not as swimming in bland sauce as their dan dan mein (#136).

                #38 Ma-Po Tofu Pork : Bland.

                #129 Eggplant Sichuan (AKA "fish fragrant eggplant") : spice level and flavor intensity were mild, but as a general eggplant dish, I thought it was quite good. The eggplant held its shape and didn't soak up excessive oil.

                #48 Xinjiang Fried Cumin Lamb : their rendition wasn't especially high in cumin or spice, and I couldn't tell whether it was beef or lamb, but I enjoyed their version of this dish. In retrospect, I think I liked it so much because it paired perfectly with the Stone Imperial Russian Stout I brought.

                #156 : Family Private Kitchen Ribs : I meant to order the pork rib special that Table 1 had, but I got this accidentally instead. Oops, but at least I was glad for the mistake. These ribs appeared to be salted somehow, maybe brined, and steamed. The ribs were meaty, and though this was a simple dish with only the flavor of pork and salt, it enjoyed it a lot. Good comfort food.

                #155 : Chongking spicy boil fish filet. I'm so glad Jefferson recommended these! The broth was flavorful, there was a light but balanced Sichuan peppercorn presence, and the fish was as delicate as the fish in broth dishes I've had at China Village.

                #26 Five Delight Combo Cold Platter : We ordered this before the meal, but it didn't come out until about half-way through. Perhaps for that reason, my memory is lapsed for the pork dishes, but I thought they were very well made. There was a shredded and spiced chicken dish which VincentLo said was called "mouth-watering" chicken. It was moist and had a good amount of Sichuan peppercorns. I didn't try the jellyfish, but I'll not that the last time I got takeout from Fey, it had undesirable flavors, even for jellyfish.

                Special: Pea Sprouts with Garlic : bright green and, to the extent that it was a little tough, it was at least evenly cooked

                Special: Chongqing Dry Pot Yellow Croaker : This was the only dish that registered on the heat scale. That was only because they set the sterno too high, and my serving came from the diluted red oil at the bottom of the pot. For the same reason, my serving of fish was way too soft.

                Special: Hunan smoked pork and fish : Good marks for the pork, which still retained a bouncy texture, and a flavor other than smoke. The fish, especially the skin, was too heavily smoked for my taste but still retained moisture.

                Dessert: Sesame Rice Balls : I liked this a lot. The glutinous balls each were maybe 1cm or so in diameter, and were in a sweet but not cloying broth. There's a version at Shanghai Dumpling with much larger balls and a more fragrant filling, but suspended in what tasted like unflavored water.

                Dessert: Golden Red Bean Cake : Very clunky. The version at House of Pancakes is much better.

                VincentLo brought an unfiltered Ozeki sake that paired nicely with the meal.

                The servers were accomodating and brought us ice buckets and chilled glasses for our booze. But they seemed to vanish as the place filled up and our meal progressed.

                On the plus side, nothing was greasy and the food tasted fresh. I most enjoyed the cold and cured dishes and the #155. My overall impression of the food is that they're being chinsy with the Sichuan peppercorns and other flavors. I could understand why they would tone down the heat level, but why for Sichuan peppercorns I have no idea. I'll note that I had asked the server for the food to be "spicy." The last time I'd ordered, over the phone, my more emphatic instructions to have lots of "ma la" and "spice" were equally met with a failure to follow through.

                PekoePeony's action at the other table of telling the server to ramp up the heat is a lesson learned... I will definitely sample the first dish, and then ask them to alter the heat accordingly, the next time I'm at a SIchuan place with multiple courses.

                1 Reply
                1. re: hyperbowler

                  Wow, really surprising to hear that the mapo tofu was bland. When I ordered it a few weeks ago, it was heavily over-salted. I could barely finish it (but I was hungry, so I did). Perhaps someone complained and they went too far in the other direction...