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A trip through the time-warp continuum with Hsu's and Silk

In her killer book Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, Priscilla Ferguson notes that cuisine is a "privileged entry into the social order" and that it is a "panoply of narratives" that interprets the world in which we live in an intensely intimate way.

I got a huge dose of that this week when I visited two restaurants owned by the same people. The newest is Silk (919 Peachtree St., 678-705-8888). The other, Hsu's (192 Peachtree Center Ave., 404-659-2788), is more than 12 years old. Eating at the two restaurants was like a quick tour of changing tastes in Asian cuisine over the last 20 years.

Indeed, when I walked through the doors of Hsu's into its gloomy little lobby decorated with scores of pictures of visiting celebrities like Erik Estrada and Fran Tarkenton, I felt like I was 9 years old stepping into one of those mock Chinatown restaurants my mother used to take me to constantly when I was a kid. This mainly Hong Kong-style restaurant with occasional Szechwan notes is not quite as toned down as the ones of my youth. But — with its lo meins, fried rice dishes and its General Tsu's chicken, and its jade dragons and red and black interior — I could almost hear my mother saying, "And if you eat everything on your plate, I'll ask the chef to show you the kitchen."

Mama didn't know how much those barbecued ducks hanging from hooks and those strange-talking people with meat cleavers scared me, but she definitely instilled in me a love of the exotic that has never left. I'm sure Chinese food was many baby boomers' entree into the culinary world of the other. Now, so many years later, looking around at Hsu's, I marveled at how readily the exotic gets renarrated as ordinary.

We ordered, at editor Addison's suggestion, the Peking duck. "They have a decent one, if you are into Peking duck," he said.

"I'm not, really," I snapped, actually thinking, "Don't make me eat that again, Mama." But I took his advice.

To me, the dish — yeah, yeah, it's a classic — has always left me feeling like I was just dunked in a vat of lard. Here, the server rolls the duck out on a cart and, for your first course, cuts the semi-crispy skin from the glazed bird. She puts the bits of fatty skin into crepes drenched with an overwhelmingly sugary plumlike sauce.

Next came a bowl of soup with so much cornstarch in it, I couldn't do anything but pick out the bits of duck and mushrooms. Finally, we were presented plates of the duck, cut into little rectangular pieces that had been grilled. The grilling turns the fat slightly crunchy and this was by far the best course, the honey-soy sauce kept to a minimum. Broccoli, earth's most forgettable vegetable, surrounded the duck.

We also sampled an extra appetizer of ground pork with minced vegetables served in super-thin cups of iceberg lettuce. Not bad, but the stiff lettuce could not be folded without cracking into pieces, so you couldn't wrap the pork mixture in it.

Now, flash forward to the present. Well, sort of. Flash forward to the late '80s, when fusion cuisine made its debut. Fusion is an example of the way taste, at a personal level, gets renarrated by the culture — namely through globalization. Hsu's is all about fusion. But it's all very odd. The fusion renders the style at Hsu's quaint. But fusion itself has become retro. Thus, whereas original fusion pushed our tastes to new frontiers, now it has become in its way as safe as Hsu's old-fashioned cuisine.

And safety, alas, translates into bland. The restaurant is located in Midtown's Metropolis complex, which itself has the kind of look that becomes archaic as soon as the last nail is hammered. The interior of the restaurant is glitzy and lofty with lots of silk and water. Outside the restrooms, there's a gigantic and silly sink in what looks like the marble tomb of Dr. No.

Considering the overwrought content of nearly every dish here, I give the wait staff props for being able to identify even the most faintly glimmering spot of oil on a plate. The staff was generally entertaining and that goes a long way in making a mediocre meal pleasant.

We started with some "pan-Asian tapas." Japan actually has a tradition of these — kaiseki, the dishes served with tea. I once had a kaiseki dinner of more than 30 small plates of exquisite, strange morsels. Here, there's nothing strange or exquisite. Dumplings filled with shredded duck breast were glossy, nicely chewy — and gamy tasting. Crab James Campcroquettes, supposedly spicy, were not. The best dish was wok-tossed calamari in a soy-ginger sauce. But even better than the calamari were the mushrooms and asparagus cooked with it.

Entrees made me want to spring to my feet and scream, 2002-style, "Yo! Tone it down!" A wonderfully broiled piece of Chilean sea bass was on a plate so busy with marinades, oils and garnishes that it deserved an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Rack of lamb crusted with mustard seed sounds enticing, doesn't it? I didn't detect a single note of mustard, just a kind of sandiness. The fresh mint leaves were equally bereft of taste. All kinds of other stuff was on the plate. I got writer's cramp trying to note it all.

Dessert? The green tea tiramisu is bizarre. Imagine you are on a carnival midway and someone screams at you: "Get yer cotton candy slightly enriched with mascarpone and green tea!" Lord have mercy! But the restaurant redeems itself with a really delicious creme brûlée enriched with pureed lychee nuts.

The moral of the story? It's 2004.

Japan exercises huge influence in the arts now. China is the leading economy in the world and will probably be the dominant political power by the middle of the century. It's time our cuisine caught up with the current narrative.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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