"Did you mean to order this?" the waiter asks, pointing to the menu after just returning from the kitchen.
"Yes," I say. Still unsure, he attempts to bridge the language gap with his hands, holding them downward to represent what I realize must be pig's feet. "You know what that is?" he asks. "Yes," I say again. OK, he says, and gives me the thumbs up.
Hey, if Hunan Pavilion has a name for being the only authentic Chinese restaurant in Fairfield County, then I have to try something that Chinese people eat, though I'm not quite ready to try the pig's intestines.
This long-time restaurant in the Grasmere section of Fairfield, near the Bridgeport border, has a special Shanghai Bund menu, featuring authentic dishes not found on Chinese-American and fusion menus. If you're not Asian, you're likely to be handed a menu that doesn't list Shanghia Bund select menu. You'll need to ask for it.
The Shanghai Bund menu has plenty of non-threatening dishes, too. The best dish we tried recently was snow cabbage with chicken. It was filled with bright green edamame and wilted strips of greens. The chicken was tender and plentiful. It was the brightest and freshest of the dishes we tried, but it was very salty. The short-grained, sticky brown rice we ordered was cooked to a pleasing chewiness.
The chive pancakes are pan-fried golden brown. The thick, wheat-flour dough is folded over chopped green chives, egg and strands of cellophane noodles. The sharpness of the Chinese chives, also known as garlic chives, stands up to the thick pancakes.
Steamed wontons have silky wrappers encasing juicy, pork meatballs. The meatballs are bland, but the soy dipping sauce is sharp with the flavor of raw garlic. Ants Climbing a Tree is an imaginative way to describe ground pork, mixed with cellophane noodles tossed in mild chili oil. It was very salty.
And how about those pigs trotters? Chopped into pieces, this is food to gnaw on. Our waiter brings packaged towelettes to the table. Eating bits of meat, cartilage and skin is not for most Americans. But more difficult to get past was the uninspired brown sauce tasting of hoisin sauce and overwhelming five-spice powder.
Prices on the Shanghai menu are higher (ranging from $13.50 to $18) than on the regular menu. The portions are huge. Hunan Pavilion has been around for about 24 years, yet despite the laudatory press of the last two years, it seems tired. The place looks worn, with scuffed bamboo chairs and old carpeting. We can see beyond that. In daytime, the big windows let in lots of natural light. In the evening, starched white tablecloths cover the tables.
Hunan Pavilion may be the most authentic Chinese restaurant in the county, but I was left with the wish that the food was more inspired.
Hunan Pavilion, at 80 Post Road, Fairfield, is open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday 12:30 to 10 p.m. Information: 203-254-3444 and www.hunanpavilionct.com.