Review: Good Fortune in Botanical Heights
I had been craving mapo tofu since I saw the “Chinese Classics” episode of my favorite cooking show, “America’s Test Kitchen.” The fiery Sichuan comfort meal features bean curd and ground meat simmered in a glossy red sauce made from fermented broad bean paste, black beans, ginger, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, chili and a lot of oil. Good Fortune, the long-anticipated addition to the Botanical Heights neighborhood’s culinary enclave, seemed like the best place to get my fix.
Like gumbo, mapo tofu is a dish that incites as many opinions as there are ways to make it. It wasn’t that Good Fortune’s version contained no meat or little, if any, oil. I understand the philosophy of co-owner and head chef Ryan McDonald (formerly at Byrd & Barrel and Juniper) to “build dishes that don’t rely on fats to deliver flavor,” according to the restaurant’s website. Nothing wrong with that.
It wasn’t even that the locally sourced tofu was pan-fried instead of simmered, as per traditional preparation. Nothing wrong with that, either. And, yes, the beans are fermented in-house, providing backbone (the roux, if you will) to the sauce.
But even with a tweak here and there, shouldn’t a touch of modernism signal some connection to the original’s characteristic complexity? Where was the exhilaratingly numbing heat, the savory aromatics, the nuanced umami and subtle sweetness? Where were the braised fermented greens? Anticipating a symphony from all those potential flavor notes, all I got was a monotone.
Good Fortune’s Mapo Doufu (tofu) represents the challenge of trying to put new spins on old cuisines. Is the result a harmonious fusion of old and new or a bastardized version of the original? Does the new reflect the authentic? And what the hell is “authentic,” anyway?
Owners McDonald and former doughnuteur Corey Smale (co-founder of Strange Donuts) have probably wrestled with similar questions since conceiving Good Fortune back in 2016, when they announced (along with former partners Bob Brazell and Hana Chung, both of Byrd & Barrel at the time) a new venture that would serve, as was then described, higher-end Americanized Chinese takeout food.
After a couple years of misfortune, including three location changes, building issues and the departure of Brazell and Chung from the team, Good Fortune opened (as if to tempt fate further) on Friday the 13th in April this year.
Along the way, the concept evolved from takeout joint to dine-in restaurant featuring regional Chinese cuisines to its current iteration as both a dine-in and takeout destination focused on what McDonald and Smale describe as “New American Chinese.” I’m not sure exactly what it means, but if that disappointing Mapo Doufu and a delicious Beef and Brassica are any indication, there’s some serious yin-yang going on.
The latter dish proved a worthy alternative to your typical, banal beef and broccoli: sliced hanger steak, seared medium-rare, alongside seasonal brassica (broccolini, in my case, cooked al dente with a nice charred finish) in an aromatic sauce of tangy fermented chili vinegar and savory red-cooked beef jus.
Kung pao chicken seemed new and American and Chinese. Deep-fried whole pieces were coated in a thick, multilayered sweet-spicy-vinegary sauce and sprinkled with (literally) melt-in-your-mouth chicken dust made by mixing tapioca powder and chicken fat. It was terrific.
Similarly, instead of standard fried triangles of crab Rangoon oozing with molten cream cheese, there were tube-shaped versions filled with real salt cod you could see and taste, served with a fermented sweet-and-sour sauce.
As with the Salt Cod Rangoon, you’ll question sharing small plates like the earthy Hen of the Woods and Shrimp Working Hand Dumplings. The former tangly, meaty local mushroom clusters were confited in beef marrow stock seasoned with wild ginger and stinging nettles (you can also order a vegetarian version) and came atop a spicy mushroom puree. The dumplings were so shrimpy good and the sauce so balanced with chili oil heat and black vinegar tartness that all five were gone in a flash.
Seared scallops, each nestled into their own little bed of turnip puree, best exhibited Good Fortune’s intent: Topped with pickled mushroom and a dollop of ham XO sauce made from dried seafood, salty ham, garlic and chili, each bite exploded with umami deliciousness.
I hope McDonald’s tea-smoked duck, a classic Sichuan dish added to the menu between my visits, sticks around. But while the breast meat was tender and the accompanying caramelized leeks and orange-daikon salad added bright tartness, I wanted more oomph from the tea and spice infusion.
Takeout from Good Fortune comes smartly packaged, and while what was inside consisted of high quality ingredients – Ziran paigu pork ribs rubbed with cumin and glazed with chili barbecue sauce, Springfield-style fried cashew chicken – nothing hit the mark or the hype. I couldn’t understand how the famous cashew chicken I’ve had a hundred times in Springfield, Missouri – the epitome of Americanized Chinese, with its crunchy nuts, thick-yet-light-tasting sauce – was so devoid of flavor.
Sharp design and intense branding, including hats, T-shirts and hoodies, is such an integral part of Good Fortune’s existence that I couldn’t help wondering if marketing is the prevailing interest. “You can see a lot just by looking,” read one of my fortune cookies.
Ultimately, quality of taste and texture are the only objective ways to judge food. Everything else – authenticity, creativity, value – are personal preferences. While there are many good things to like about Good Fortune (particularly those shrimp dumplings and the scallops), my other fortune cookie offered the best advice: “Well begun is half done.”
Where // 1641D Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314.726.4666, goodfortunestl.com
Don’t-Miss Dishes // Hen of the Woods, Shrimp Working Hand Dumplings, scallops
Vibe // Uber-stylish compact space with lots of exposed brick and the coolest, jazzy low-vibe soundtrack of late
Entree Prices // $10 to $25
When // Tue. to Sat. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun. – 5 to 10 p.m.
Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and critic for Sauce Magazine.
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