The name Fanhouse may be about as generic as it comes for a place in the Fan, but the man behind the restaurant provides character in spades.
Sunny Zhao (pronounced “chow”) grew up in a restaurant family in China and worked as a filmmaker and musician before he re-entered the culinary scene. When Verbena closed in the fall, he teamed up with chef Reece Roberts, formerly of Franco's and Cabo's, and manager Joe Jenkins to open the Asian-inspired space at Floyd and Robinson. But don't call the menu Asian fusion. Based on staff members' reaction to the term, they or anyone else risk the firing squad if they use that description.
Zhao's flair for the dramatic is all over the walls, literally. It's not often you find a life-sized nude in a restaurant, but in this case Zhao's favorite painting — Lady Godiva astride a horse and clothed only in her long hair — dominates the dining room. The red silk curtains and cushions, dim lighting, dark wood and big windows add to the theatrical aesthetic, and remind me of a sushi bar in Tribeca. They take the food seriously, but you're there mainly for cocktails and atmosphere. Family-friendly it's not, but to be fair, tuna sashimi and litchi martinis are best enjoyed without the company of a 4-year old.
The menu is all grown-up too, composed almost entirely of seafood and beef. Chef Roberts has a way with fish, and the most successful dishes are generous with bold Asian ingredients. The mussels are divinely plump in their sea of buttery white wine sauce flavored with cilantro and garlic. The pan-seared sea bass is likewise expertly prepared with a lip-smacking salt-and-pepper crust and wasabi mashed potatoes. Both the black tiger shrimp and calamari appetizers are nicely grilled if a little lackluster. Hiding under the greens in the calamari dish is a knockout chili vinaigrette, but it's too bad you don't know it's there until you reach the bottom.
The lobster and crabmeat fried rice gets rave reviews from other diners, but I find it bland, whereas the Fanhouse seafood pasta is rich and creamy, topped with a perfect tempura soft-shell crab.
The only beef we try is the Fanhouse pot roast, which is a disappointment. The promised banana leaves are absent, so it's simply a bowl of tough sliced meat swimming in brown sauce, though it is partially saved by the rich beefy flavor of the broth. A small bowl of jasmine rice is served on the side, leaving me wondering how the dish should be eaten. Dump rice on the beef and mix together with sauce? Bite of rice dipped in sauce followed by bite of beef? Perhaps another bowl or spoon would solve the dilemma.
You'd be remiss not to try the dumplings at a place that bills itself as “home of the famous crazy dumplings,” and they are rightfully celebrated. Even so, it seems excessive for Zhao to correct our server in front of us on how the dipping sauce should be presented. A separate bowl of chili paste apparently is intended to be mixed tableside to give the tangy, umami-ful concoction its kick. I'm not sure what makes these dumplings crazy, but I can imagine how the killer sauce might become famous.
Aside from its secret family dumpling recipe, Fanhouse is a work in progress. It's open for Sunday brunch, and there are plans to incorporate the space next door and open the patio for street-side dining. Lunch service and even a sushi bar are possibilities. On the downside, repeat customers might be disappointed to discover that prices have gone up $1 or $2 on most dishes since Fanhouse opened. But if you're not prepared to splurge on the $27 sea bass, there are still five small plates for less than $6 to choose from.
You can't get a printed menu of your options, but dessert is no afterthought. The marble cheesecake with chocolate ganache and the white chocolate bread pudding are both fitting tributes to Lady Godiva: rich, decadent and provocative.
Regardless of what turns up next at Fanhouse, you're sure to find Zhao working the room and keeping a careful eye on the action, just like any good director.
2526 Floyd Ave.
Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Bar open until 1 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday