"We're out of the pig blood," our waitress at Fugu says sadly, and of course those are the words no one ever really wants to hear. What next? No spicy pork kidney? No pig ears today?
But we're the kind of stoics who can overlook crushing daily disappointments, and it's hard to complain, since Fugu is about the only place in town where you can order up the entire digestive tract - stomach to intestines to kidneys - and get it quivering on a plate. And that's all to the restaurant's very big credit. While most of Madison's Chinese kitchens have opted for a timid, Anglicized and in some cases wholly invented version of Asian cuisine, Fugu is to Chinese dining what places like La Mestiza are to Mexican: a new wave of actually authentic local kitchens that do justice to ethnic food.
The dogged attempt to do things right is obvious in the dining room itself, which has been transformed from a dark dump of a place into an almost airy space, punctuated by white leatherette booths, sleek wood floors and a little mustache of a thatched roof topping the television (thankfully turned off).
The blended decor is fitting. Though it favors authenticity, Fugu is also smart enough to recognize that not everyone is a purist. That's why the very gracious, efficient waitresses hand you two menus when you sit down. The first is a thumper of a book that includes familiar Chinese and Thai dishes (cashew chicken, pork in black bean sauce, kung pao anything, Mongolian beef, pad Thai, penang curry, et al.).
The second, harder-core Sichuan menu is where the inner organs pop up, though it doesn't read like an unrelenting vivisection. There are plenty of dishes here too (from eggplant in garlic sauce to crispy chicken) that don't approximate a food challenge.
But then why not challenge yourself? Innards are the new fashion in western restaurants too. Every city now has one perennially packed, avidly carnivorous restaurant (in Chicago it's the very good Publican, sister kitchen to Blackbird and Avec) that does inventive things with offal. And I've always been a fan of organs: There is nothing better than velvety sweetbreads or tongue if it's cooked right (i.e., for a really long time).
Even connoisseurs should prepare themselves for Fugu's amazing voyage through the body. I wouldn't, for instance, probably order the spicy pork kidneys again, because these don't have much relation to those polite, plumped-up, livery kidneys you get in steak and kidney pie. These are big angry flaps of kidney distinguished mostly by a sour taste, barely disguised by the spicy Sichuan sauce. And though the appetizer plate of cold ox tongue and tripe with chili sauce can sound festive, these are very diehard body parts, the tongue seamed with silvery veins, and the tough tripe slightly gelatinous.
But then taste is a matter of, well, taste - and conditioning - and a lot of the Asian students plowing through their dishes during our evening at Fugu are obvious fans of the dishes. And there is certainly a range of innards you can eat here without a practice run. I'd return to Fugu for the pork stomach in hot chili sauce alone; the slices of stomach, tossed with crisp vegetables, have the texture and woody flavor of wild mushrooms. And then plenty of the dishes on both of Fugu's menus are simple successes.
While mango chicken can sound insipid after your tripe appetizer, in fact it's a bright, clean, summery toss of tender chicken and big fruity mango slices, and, like many things here, a real bargain. The heaped plate, enough for a leftover dinner, is priced at $11.50. While a familiar shredded pork with garlic sauce is undermined by the tough meat, chicken and vegetables in an understated red curry is a subtle take on a standard. So are a classic cashew chicken and a crisp-skinned deep-fried red snapper in a very red, sweet penang curry. A rich walnut chicken and shrimp, studded with candied walnuts and a blur of tempura batter and honey sauce, is as fun as a kid's birthday party.
Maybe best of all are the dumplings and pot stickers, which are good enough to qualify as serious dim sum. These come variously stuffed with pork, vegetables and shrimp. If you order the fresh ones off the Sichuan menu (these are handmade to order), you will taste the kind of delicate, elegant dumpling that has no relation to the usual chewy, careless rendition.
It's that attention to detail, and soulful tradition, that will put Fugu firmly on the local dining map.