The quality and variety of Chinese restaurants in northern Rockville are such that it’s probably reckless to pronounce a best, particularly when that best has been open only a few months—barely enough time for the woks to become seasoned, much less to develop an identity.
But I’m sorely tempted to. East Pearl, which opened in February on a traffic-jammed stretch of Rockville Pike, immediately added to the choke, drawing more customers by the week and giving rise to a nightly scene of frustrated drivers honking and circling the overloaded strip-mall lot in search of a place to park.
Inside—after popping a shrimp dumpling into my mouth, its perfect pleats of noodle encasing shrimp and tree mushrooms, then slurping the rich, consommé-like broth it floated in—I understood what the excitement was about. Next came a plate of soy-glazed roast chicken whose sweetness and succulence surpassed that of most of the barbecue I’ve enjoyed in this area.
Last was a bowl of seafood congee, a complex concoction that called to mind the rustic elegance of a great bowl of stone-ground grits, its pulverized bits of rice clinging to diced poached shrimp and slivers of ginger. Most tasting menus would kill for a three-dish sequence that good.
East Pearl is the vision of Sue Li, previously owner of Wheaton’s China Chef, the kind of Chinese restaurant that many of us unfortunately have come to associate with the cuisine—faded dining room, satisfactory but unexciting cooking, a relic of an age when frozen vegetables in the stir-fry were permissible and a good beef-and-broccoli qualified as exotica.
Li sold China Chef in 2006 so she could devote more time to her aging mother and young children. Returning to the scene earlier this year, she told me in a phone interview, she was determined to aim higher, to try something more ambitious, more beautiful. She’s succeeded.
With its industrial ceiling and hard surfaces (it’s loud even at lunchtime), tiny modern chandeliers, and designer Dutch flatware (a sly joke, that the china should come from Holland), the space has the bright, clean openness of a coffeehouse, except perhaps for the hanging duck carcasses near the kitchen.
It’s in the back of the house, though, that her ambitions are most evident. Nominally the influence is Hong Kong, whose pastiche cuisine pulls in influences from Canton, Guangzhou, Japan, Singapore, and the West. This can be confusing enough for the average diner, but Li has further complicated things by adding a number of Szechuan dishes to the menu, including a punchless mapo tofu and a handful of classics from the Sino-American canon.
As with all hybrids, it’s often easier to say what Hong Kong cuisine is not than what it is. It’s not, for instance, the exclamation-point assault of Szechuan, all spice and smoke and oil, with in-your-face intensity. In many ways, it’s the opposite—a cuisine that revels not in the bold stroke but in the subtle effect, in the delicate interplay of texture, the unity that comes from the deft integration of flavors into a whole.
Its elegance and emphasis on harmony and balance suggest a cuisine ideally suited to banquets, but it’s also a cuisine of the street, where its simplicity and directness are embraced by the city’s typically harried professionals. To her credit, Li has built her restaurant around this dual identity. There are two kitchens and two sets of cooks—four in the main kitchen and two in the smaller one devoted to the quick, casual dishes that pack patrons into the food stalls and dash-and-dine cafes along the streets of Hong Kong.
In effect, East Pearl is two restaurants under the same roof—a place to gather around the lazy Susan and linger over artfully presented platters and a place to chow down on soup, congee, and roast meats. You’ll eat well either way, but the latter is the sort of experience that inspires a deep and abiding devotion, offering the sorts of pleasures typically associated with the world of fine dining—cleanness of execution, nuances that you pick up on after the eighth or ninth bite, flavors that come at you in waves.
I wouldn’t ignore the work of the bigger kitchen, but you’d be wise to regard the smaller one as your primary supplier—building your meal around orders of roast meats, shrimp-dumpling soup, and congee—and accessorize according to appetite and interest.
I’d augment the meal with a vegetable—say, Chinese broccoli steamed to a perfect tenderness, glossed with oyster sauce, and interleaved with bacon—along with a noodle dish (a marvelous Singapore-inspired stir-fry of egg noodles, roast pork, shrimp, green onions, and jalapeños spiked with yellow curry powder) and a platter of fish (either fried sea bass with a robust black-bean sauce or delicately fried whole cod, showstoppingly served with the head curling toward its tail like Carl Jung’s Ouroboros).
If there’s room, I’d include shrimp with walnuts, a gloriously strange amalgamation of the influences that make up Hong Kong style. A staple of the banquet table and the dim sum cart, it makes for an attractive presentation, even as its defining ingredient, a sweet mayonnaise sauce dolloped over the deep-fried shrimp, suggests the worst sort of East/West marriage. But this one is fabulous—stunningly rich, yes, but also surprisingly light.
The same trick, transforming richness into lightness, is what makes the longer-cooked dishes—the braises and slow-simmered ones—so appealing. Get acquainted with the casseroles—complex, low-and-slow concoctions served in bubbling cauldrons that stop conversation when they’re borne steaming through the room. I love a version with bone-in bites of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and enough garlic to choke a vampire plus another highlighting the yin/yang perfection of oysters and ginger.
A dish featuring braised pig skin, mean-while, is a reminder that offal-obsessed American chefs who typically turn the often-discarded bits into jerky or crisp them into garnishes are missing a wealth of possibilities. Here the skin is submerged in a pot of chicken stock and simmered for hours. The texture is akin to dried bean curd and the rich, chewy saltiness of the skin seems to yearn for the mild, crunchy bitterness of turnips.
Good as it was, I ended up taking most of it—and parts of six other dishes, presented in heaping, family-style servings—home. As I walked to my car hefting a large paper bag, a line was forming at the door. In the parking lot, cars were vying for spots. One driver leaned out the window, shouting instructions to his friends to get a table—and order the chicken.
“Good idea,” I said, laughing. He was too concerned with the scrum in the parking lot to bother with pleasantries. He pointed toward my car: “Are you coming out?”
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.