Mist rolls across the surface in melancholy sighs. A lone figure fishes in a small boat while three men linger on a curving wooden bridge overhead, perhaps debating the mind-bending answer to an ancient koan. A paddle wheel spins, a mysterious orb whirls and the entire village seems to run solely from the kinetic energy of running water.
The evocative scene playing out atop the freestanding aquarium that flanks the entrance of First China is the coolest thing I've laid eyes on in some time. It doesn't matter that there are no fish in the tank. Aquariums are a feng shui tool for attracting money, but where did they find this thing? It sure wasn't PetSmart.
Once you pry your eyes away from the fluvial panorama, First China looks like your typical Chinese establishment along Buford Highway. The room is large and spare, with a raised, carpeted stage in its center to accommodate marriage banquets (the phoenix and dragon depicted on the wall behind the stage symbolize blissful matrimony). Two columns in the center of the room resemble either dumb bells or stripper polls, depending on your mental disposition.
I'll confess that Chinese restaurants tend to vex me, in part because I'm spoiled. I had a good friend in high school, Audrey, whose parents were from Taiwan, and they could throw down in the kitchen. They had ducks hanging upside down in the garage, a professional stove with an intimidating gas range for wok cooking -- the whole shebang. I happily ate anything they fed me. When Audrey and I both ended up in Boston for college, I would join her family for meals in Chinatown. Her father or aunt would whisper with the servers, and out would come these exquisite, unusual dishes that certainly did not grace the tables of the non-Chinese-speaking folks sitting nearby.
So now when I visit Chinese restaurants, sans translator, I long to be back in the club. I want the good stuff. Alas, unless I feel up for snooping and vigorously gesturing at the off-the-menu delicacies the Chinese patrons are enjoying, I stick to the list of options provided in English.
Not that the choices are limited at First China. There are more than 250 items, and that doesn't include the 40 dim sum choices that are available daily at lunch. Possibilities range from the standard Americanized offerings with the ridiculous names (the infamous General Tso, the insipid melange of vegetables that probably would not have brought Buddha much delight at all) to preparations that admittedly don't have much appeal to most Western palates. Intestines with sour cabbage, anyone?
I tend toward choices that fall somewhere between the above extremes. Preserved egg and fish soup falls into that category. It looks and tastes like egg drop soup, but includes delicate flakes of fish and bits of the glossy preserved egg (sometimes poetically named 1,000-year-old egg) that add more texture than flavor. Yummy. Their take on wanton soup, though, is awfully bland. The broth needs more depth and the shrimp and pork wantons need to be more aggressively seasoned. Pass the soy sauce.
Bitter melon, which resembles a cucumber and has a pleasantly acerbic taste, shows up frequently across the menu. Try the bitter melon with beef, but skip it with spare ribs, which are bony little morsels that are difficult to gnaw. The crispy duck is a pared-down version of Peking duck, with wonderfully delicate crepes for wrapping the duck with plum sauce and julienned veggies.
Steamed whole fish is beautiful here, cooked to the point where the consistency is somewhere between firm and custardy. There's the typical presentation strewn with scallions in a light, gingery sauce but also a more unusual "home style" variation surrounded by an assortment of well-steamed vegetables.
Many dishes fall into the sugary trap. Beef with pineapple and satay sauce is not the peanuty concoction you might expect, but tastes like meat dunked in the simple syrup used to make caramel. Stick to Thai restaurants for this one. The selection of sizzling rice dishes indeed arrive at the table hissing with a trail of fajita-like smoke trailing behind it, but there's no rice. Only gooey, slightly spicy meat. I enlist our server to help unravel the mystery of the missing rice, but he only smiles and points to the container of steamed rice. Harumph.
If you're into dim sum, check this place out. The selection is small and the dumplings look distinctly wilted during weekdays but on weekends, the carts are stacked high with steaming metal dishes and crunchy, creamy goodies. I'm particularly fond of the fish and shrimp cakes that are fried to order on the roving hot cart. The size of the room makes dim sum a less anonymous experience than at larger venues like Royal China and Oriental Pearl.
The restaurant has changed owners recently. The English name has stayed the same, but the Chinese name has changed to something involving "Ocean" or "Sea." I couldn't get a straight answer. Argh! Barred from even knowing the joint's true name!
As I stand ogling the aquarium again on my way out the door, I peer at a table of Asian men digging into a scrumptious-looking plate of greens that wasn't listed on the menu. First China is one of the better Chinese restaurant experiences I've had in Atlanta, but the writing on the wall remains clear: I need to enroll in Cantonese language courses.