Paradise Regained

Let us all now meditate on our family motto: In Soo conquers all.

I'm not the woman I was, and I'll tell you why. In the gay days of my callow youth, I could expect to be up and about, dancing like fat in a frying pan and calling for more hooch almost immediately after encountering a pestilence as foul as the so-called crab cake I was fool enough to order recently at Jimmy's Café On The Park. But nowadays I don't bounce back as easily. I take bad food personally. Tempus fugit, my friends. When you calculate, as I have, that there are a scant 14,000 dinner opportunities left before you hand in your final supper pail, you begin to take a dim view of sub-par crab cakes. Perverse is the chef who thinks I value dinner so little that I would want to waste even one of those opportunities choking on a plate of spurious sawdust. A lousy crab cake is not just an insult; it is a soldier in misery's gray army.

And so it transpired that, a good three days after my skirmish with that effrontery-laden puck of oil and drywall, I was not yet my merry old self. Gloom had settled in. I staggered around town looking like a species of dermatitis.

Pull yourself together, ordered my pal, Babs Woof, slapping the packet of instant ramen out of my hand. We're goin' to In Soo.

In case you missed the memo, allow me to remind you that In Soo is actually Shu Feng, restored after a hellish year-long interim during which it had apparently been abducted while an imposter Shu Feng, inferior in all respects, sprang up in its place. This dark period in St. Louis gastronomy, known as the Era of the False Feng, had rather taken on the aspect of an X-File. To recap:

Shu Feng, as far as the Posey-Smiths are concerned -- and we are by no means alone in our view -- had been for years one of the top five restaurants in the universe, and the only place for Chinese. When an informal investigation turned up the shocking news that owners In Soo Jung and Steve Fung had sold the place, name and all, to somewhat less-gifted restaurateurs, we could but emit weak, melancholy sighs. Citywide, fellow aficionados went into mourning. Speculations on the sinister development figured prominently at Wash. U. faculty meetings. Lamentations could be heard wafting over the crunch of soft-shell crabs at dinner parties. Elegies poured out over the hum of washing machines at the DeMun Laundromat.

"It looked like Shu Feng," went the refrain, "but it was ... wrong."

"The news killed Mother," was also popular.

"Was there ever really a Shu Feng?" mused others, brushing away small tears, "or was it all just a beautiful dream?"

Happily, the cognoscenti are now delivered from purgatorial gloom; the Jung-Fungs have re-emerged at a newly renovated storefront just two doors down from their old place. The dining room has doubled in size, the bathroom is no longer in the kitchen, and the food is better than ever.

Before Babs, Tex, Stingray and I could cast a shadow on her brand-new carpet, the awe-inspiring In Soo, famed for her cantankerous micromanagement of the dining experience, swooped down to catch us in a mad welcoming embrace. Hugs were standard that evening, and the steady squeezing of long-lost regulars kept her too busy to devote herself to her trademark persecutions of the patrons. Astonishingly, she only yelled at us once (taking apparent exception to Stingray's having draped her jacket over her chair), but it was music to my ears; my crab-cake angst vanished instantly.

Let us now meditate on the Posey-Smith family motto: In Soo conquers all.

Their menu may be divided more or less into two categories, lacquery and savory. The reader will have deduced that by lacquery I mean sweetish and glossy; of these dishes there are an abundance at In Soo. They feature sauces -- thick, flirty tinctures with the resonance of porcelain glazes -- that sparkle like witty conversation. They are not inhibited, but neither are they debauched. Twinges of heat from chile pods check their insouciance just before it descends into depravity, with refined results. To wit:

Chicken with Orange Flavor -- boneless, battered, deep-fried chunks of chicken, dotted with peas and orange peel, enameled with a wanton red version of the aforementioned glaze -- is vulgar splendor on a plate. The batter is buoyant, the meat is moist, the effect is Elysian. Ditto the Crispy Eggplant, which exhibits a similar physiognomy and is exceptionally toothsome. Also fried (but not battered) is the Crispy Beef: thin slices of meat in a flamboyant, spicy sauce the color of a vintage rouge de fer satisfies deeply with a whisper of crunch.

As delightful as they are, its possible that any one of the above dishes may ignite, in those with sterner palates, a slight yearning for balance. In such cases it is recommended that the group also select something along the lines of Mongolian beef or bulgoki as a counterweight. The former is the classic presentation: thinly sliced beef with onions over crispy rice noodles; the latter is a Korean preparation of barbecued beef with onions over shredded cabbage. The meat is startlingly tender and flavorful in both dishes, and I do not exaggerate when I say that my pals and I were in raptures over them both, moaning faintly with closed eyes and idiotic grins.

By now this posture was familiar to us, for we had already eaten with relish an order of gingery pot stickers and a vegetable moo shu. The pot stickers are marvelous fried dumplings that we sprinkled liberally with soy sauce and vinegar. The moo shu, which also comes in several non-vegetarian versions, is a stir-fried mélange, rolled up tableside into four homemade pancakes with dollops of hoisin sauce. Ours, with carrots, bean sprouts, tofu and scrambled egg, stood alone at the pinnacle of the moo-shu heap (tip: I have found that the last of the four is usually the biggest; jockey for position accordingly).

Space does not permit proper paeans to In Soo's many other flawless offerings, like pork with kimchi, shrimp with spicy garlic gravy or Tex's all-time favorite, the excellent spicy fried green beans with beef. And the soups! Out on the sidewalk we collided with an urgent fellow of a crazed, almost maniacal bearing. He looked to me like one of the brotherhood of poor unfortunates who have recently been fed inedible crab cakes. "Best hot and sour soup in the city!" he gurgled hungrily, and disappeared through the door, where deliverance awaited him.