Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Red Pearl

When I heard that a new Chinese restaurant was moving into the space once occupied by favorite dim sum spot Jesse Wong's Hong Kong, but that it was concentrating on American-style Chinese food, I dismissed it. But then I got a copy of the Sichuan-style menu from Howard County blogger HowChow and I changed my mind. Columbia is closer than Odenton, and while Grace Garden has some of the best Chinese food I've ever eaten, I'd love to have a shorter commute to a good meal.

Mr Minx and I paid a visit to Red Pearl last weekend with our friend LaRaine. The first thing I noticed is that the new restaurant has changed up the decor quite a bit, breaking up the large dining room with wood and glass partitions. (Hopefully this won't cause too much confusion when Red Pearl starts dim sum service in August.) We were given a menu of mostly standard American-style dishes and the rather short Sichuan menu, from which we ordered two dishes - pork dumplings in hot oil sauce, and dry bean curd with skinless peanuts.

I once had a dish of won tons in a spicy oil sauce at a restaurant called Szechuan Best in Randallstown. The sauce was unlike anything I have eaten before or since and I hoped that Red Pearl's version was at least similar. Happily, it was. This sauce was not particularly hot, but it did have quite a bit of the nice numbing sensation that comes from Sichuan peppercorns, and an unusual flavor that is almost like a combination of star anise and cumin (would love to know what it is if anyone out there knows for certain). Unfortunately, the dumplings themselves, while seemingly house-made, were bland, with little seasoning in the rather scant filling.

The cold tofu dish had a variation of the red oil sauce with more of the floral Sichuan peppercorn flavor and none of the star anise. It was good, but a bit hard to eat as the pieces were so small; one could only pick up one or two bits at a time while using chopsticks. Interestingly, the server made a point of telling us that the cucumbers garnishing the dish were organic.

We also ordered some things from the regular menu.

First we received the Westlake Seafood soup, a concoction of egg whites and bits of seafood in a light broth. This was better than most versions I've tried, with a nice pepper flavor in the stock.

We also tried the Peking duck to see if it compared to the stellar version at Asian Court. I loved that the meat and the skin were separated on the dish so the skin could retain its crispness. Overall it was pretty good, although the skin wasn't half as crisp as Asian Court's version.

We tried to order the "whole fish with meat sauce," but it seemed to confuse our server (who spoke perfect English) even after we physically pointed out the text on the menu. She proceeded to tell us that the fish could be steamed or fried, and served with a variety of sauces including sweet and sour and Sichuan. None of which sounded like a "meat sauce." After some back and forth with no relief to her confusion, we decided on fried fish in Sichuan sauce, to continue with the spicy theme of the meal.

Luckily, the server decided to read back our order and at that point stated that the fish would be tilapia. I asked if there was another choice, and there was - rockfish. Thank goodness, as I think tilapia tastes like raw sewage and didn't want to waste my money or tastebuds on that nasty stuff.

The rockfish was HUGE - as big as my forearm and hand - and as crisp as fried chicken. The sauce, while not intrinsically hot, had bits of hot pepper in it that were quite dangerous when accidentally inhaled. That's all I needed - to choke on chiles while I'm eating fish bones. The bones, for the most part, at least in the chunks of fish I ate, were few and obvious, and didn't deter me from enjoying the dish.

We all enjoyed it, as evidenced by this photo of the remains:

Finally, we tried a dish of Sichuan string beans. I found them to be overcooked, a bit oily, and otherwise unimpressive.

The verdict: The fish was the best dish of the evening, and I enjoyed the goodly amount of Sichuan peppercorns found in our two appetizers. The duck was definitely better than average and the string beans below average. I'd visit again to try more items from the Sichuan menu, like the Dan Dan noodles, the flounder filet with soft tofu, and the Kung Pao chicken. I'm also looking forward to trying dim sum in August.

And while friendly and attentive, the staff might want to bone up on the menu a bit. I still think there's a mysterious meat sauce available for fish, and I want to try it!

Red Pearl
10215 Wincopin Circle
Columbia, MD 21044
(410) 715-6530

Red Pearl on Urbanspoon