What's in a sign?
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If children should be seen but not heard, and writers should be read but neither seen nor heard, what does this tell us about restaurant signage? Certainly that it should be seen and, ideally, read. Signage isn't everything, but it tells us a lot about a place even before we step inside. If signage is going to be conspicuous, it ought to be stylish, as at Dosa and Ziryab, and if it's going to be inconspicuous, as at many of the highest-end places around town, then the place had better be so good that we'll find it despite the lack of a beckoning beacon. The splendor inside had better balance the lack or near lack of street presence.
What, then, are we to make of conspicuous but unstylish signs, such as the one that hangs above Canton, a Cantonese seafood and dim sum restaurant on Folsom I've zoomed past a million times over the years without pausing to consider because the cheap, blaring, generic yellow sign above the door all but dared me to stop in for some mediocre, greasy food, and who needs that? Bad Chinese food isn't hard to find in San Francisco, alas, and one of the easier ways to find it is to look for those turmeric yellow signs that are the Asian equivalents of all-American roadside-diner signs, complete with a Coke (or Pepsi) blurb and logo.
Canton, moreover, has hung its jaundiced shingle in a part of town that's moved notably upmarket in the more than 20 years the restaurant has dwelled in the neighborhood. The old warehouses and industrial plants are gone or transformed now, and the area's restaurants are tuned into the tourist and convention frequencies being broadcast from the nearby Moscone Center and its coterie of hotels and museums. Canton looks like a throwback, a piece of old furniture abandoned by the curb with a hand-lettered "free" sign taped to it but it is not.
For one thing, the restaurant is one of a handful in town to offer the Cantonese specialty nor mai gai ($20), the skin of a whole chicken, stuffed with sausage-dotted sticky rice and deep-fried. The dish is more interesting for its presentational value and as a textural adventure than as one of taste, since in the mouth it's basically rice with a hint of salty sweetness (from the Chinese sausage) and a bit of poultry crunch (from the skin). Much of the flavor comes from the accompanying mystery sauce, a kind of sweet-sour vinaigrette laced with rounds of scallion.
We could not say where the rest of the chicken went, though some of the meat might have found its way into the chicken chow mein ($7), fat noodles tossed with chopped scallions and a soy-based sauce. And the remainder of it, cut into strips and sautéed to a golden crispness, might have ended up in the excellent chicken salad ($7.50), with a thick honey-soy vinaigrette served on the side. The kitchen, in fact, does a nice job all the way around in the crispy department, from salt and pepper spare ribs ($8.50) to the similar but even better salt and pepper sea bass ($18), slightly curly flaps of creamy flesh within a delicate golden envelope.
Cantonese cooking is known for its seafood variations and for its mild subtleties. These themes intersect in the seafood combo ($12), a large clay pot filled with prawns, squid, and scallops atop a medley of vegetables, among them snow peas, water chestnuts, and shreds of carrot and napa cabbage. The broth that hydrates this little world tends toward reticence, but you will find that the vegetables, when you reach them, have been tarted up nicely with ginger, whose clear, strong flavor shines like a light in a dim room.
But not all Cantonese subtlety has to do with seafood. Snow peas beef ($8.50) proves that meat too can show well with gentle handling, although it must be said that beef is among the most forgiving of ingredients and is often excellent with little or no help at all. Here the supporting cast includes a shower of snow peas, bright green as spring, and a slightly sweet sauce with flecks of crushed peppercorn.
Practically every Chinese restaurant of note in town offers some version of duck buns, and Canton ($13) is no exception, although there is a twist. The half duck is brought tableside and first stripped of its reddish gold skin, which is then served in steamed buns, along with plum sauce and scallion tips shredded to look like pieces of frisée. While these are eaten, the skinless bird is carved up and the meat passed around the table. I liked this little drama in two acts, but I did find the skinless, bunless meat to be a bit naked.
Although Chinese artistry in soup making cannot be doubted, and although I have had some excellent dessert soups over the years fruit soups, mainly I just don't warm to the sweet red-bean soups that bring many a Chinese dinner to a close. Canton's entry ($3) looked quite familiar, like muddy river water with bobbing unmentionables, and it tasted like what it was: cooked beans with some sugar added. I would recoil less, I think, if it weren't served hot. Heat, on the other hand, became the shredded pork soup ($3.50), an early-on course made memorable by the ghostly intensity of dried scallops.
Canton is modestly if neatly fitted out, but the space is magisterial: as enormous as a ballroom, with a coffered glass ceiling and a far wall lined with aquariums in which the more alert members of the day's catch await some sign that their turn is imminent. *
CANTON SEAFOOD AND DIM SUM RESTAURANT
Daily, 10:30 a.m.9:30 p.m.
655 Folsom, SF
Beer and wine
Comfortable noise level