I read a lot of local food blogs and occasionally check the Chowhound boards and was intrigued by the effusive praise heaped on a small Chinese restaurant, located in Odenton of all places. I contacted my friend LaRaine, expert on things Chinese (being Hong Kong born herself) and we arranged to meet at Grace Garden to see (and taste) what the hubbub was all about.
After perusing the online menu for a while, we both determined that there were several things we wanted to try. For our first adventure, we ordered two dishes that required advance notice - the tea smoked chicken and a dish billed as "Chinese Sea Treasures." Raine called those in on Thursday. We also determined we needed to try one of the pork belly dishes, plus something noodle-y to round things out. Finally, just in case Mr Minx was unhappy with our choices, we'd try a fifth dish of his choosing, although I strongly urged him to order from the head-on shrimp selections.
Mr Minx and I set off on our journey an hour in advance of our meeting time because we weren't too familiar with the Fort Meade area. A good thing the Web site has this photo of the restaurant, otherwise we wouldn't have spotted the unassuming store front. The inside is just as unassuming as the outside, perhaps more so - a plain room with a handful of mismatched tables, the walls decorated with photographs of the food. And what sounded to be Christian country music playing softly in the background. Am I the only person who likes to hear the appropriate ethnic music in restaurants or none at all?
But hey - one doesn't go to Grace Garden for the ambiance.
One goes for the food.
This is the Braised Pork Belly with Mui Choy - Thick Slices of Seasoned Pork Belly, Slow-Cooked with Preserved Mustard Cabbage. This was the most tender and succulent pork belly I have ever eaten. It was arranged over a dish of mui choy, a dried salted mustard cabbage that has been reconstituted and braised along with the meat in a thin, sweetish sauce. Delicious.
Cantonese Sea Treasures - Shrimp, Scallop & Sharks Fin Stuffed in Cucumber, Steamed and Glazed with Light Sauce. These were more interesting looking than tasting. The filling was extremely mild, with more shrimp than scallop and I detected no shark's fin at all. Of course, the price of that stuff is so high, it's likely very little was used. The cucumbers were hollowed out and lightly steamed so they still retained some texture. The taste was fine, but it reminded me more of a fancy dim sum dish (the cucumbers were cut into segments; you really can't tell that from the photo). It was difficult to eat, as the filling slid right out of the cucumber, and together it was nearly impossible to pick up with chopsticks. (I liked that the restaurant gave us chopsticks right away, and didn't offer Western utensils to us at all.)
Smoke Tea Duck - Whole Duck Steamed in Smoky Tea Flavored Sauce. So I mentioned above that we ordered the tea smoked chicken. Apparently whomever took the order heard "duck" so that's what they prepared. Not a problem for us duck-lovers! And I'm kinda glad they made the mistake. The duck was absolutely amazing! It was perfectly smoky, like the duck accidentally flew through a campfire before ending up on our table. The meat was tender and juicy, and the skin was imbued with smoke. Mr Minx remarked that he had never tasted anything like it. And lucky us - we have more than half the duck left in our fridge right now to eat during the week.
Cantonese Soy Sauce Noodles - Thin Egg Noodles Stir Fried with Ginger, Scallion and Soy Sauce. I thought this would be a good bland dish to order. LaRaine was expecting something more like the thin noodles we ordinarily get at dim sum at Jesse Wong's, the flavor of which comes primarily from wok hei. Those noodles are also fried to a nice crunch. Grace Garden's version were soft and redolent of sesame oil, a flavor, opined Raine, that should not have existed in the dish at all. As for Mr Minx and I - we liked it, and it was pretty much what I expected.
Golden Shrimp - Crispy Fried Head-On Shrimp Coated with Golden Salted Egg Yolk & Crisp Garlic. This dish was Mr Minx's choice. It looked terrific, and tasted pretty good too. My one issue with it was that the shrimp were perhaps too big, so the shells were a bit on the tough side. And one must eat the shells because that's where the flavor is. And if you like to eat the heads, as Mr Minx does, perhaps it's best to refrain from eating all of them, as that causes some mighty painful indigestion within a very short amount of time.
Ok - I actually have two issues with this dish. The shrimp didn't have the lovely iodine flavor that I pretty much only get at Chinese restaurants. But the semi-caramelized crisp garlic and egg yolk topping, particularly mixed with plain rice or the noodles, almost made up for it.
Overall, I enjoyed the food at Grace Gardens and wish it was more conveniently located to Towson. It wasn't the paradise of perfection that I was convinced it must be from all the accolades, but it was home to some great Chinese cooking. We'll certainly go back again to try more, particularly the Sichuan selections.