440 J Street, Downtown San Diego
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Red Pearl Kitchen made a splash in Huntington Beach. Now it's testing the waters of San Diego, and if the nearly full houses are any indication, it's getting on swimmingly.
Enter the restaurant from the mezzanine and you can look down on the action. Half of the dining room's walls are brick with horizontal racing stripes in shiny metallic glaze; the other half are drywalled and painted bright red; the floor is made of glittery dark pebbles set in poured epoxy. The open ceiling is painted black, pipes and ducts fashionably on display, hung with large red Japanese-style lampshades. Smaller pendant table lamps are made from amber plastic slats held together at odd angles by red plastic "chopsticks," like a sophisticated arts 'n' crafts project. Most seating is at black leather banquettes or booths for two. From the mezzanine, the hostess leads you down a ramp, past a comfortable-looking bar-lounge with straw chairs. A stone Buddha presides over the diners with a faint, benign smile, unbothered by a noise level so high that, if there's a large party seated anywhere in the room, you'll have to yell at your servers and tablemates.
The long menu is an anthology of Asian "pick hits," reinterpreted by a young American chef, Jason Marcus. His menu differs from that of the Huntington Beach flagship, where the chef is Vietnamese. Marcus culled his dishes from favorites he's enjoyed at Asian restaurants in the U.S. and during a three-month eating tour along the Mekong River (Vietnam, Cambodia, southern Thailand). It's not precisely Asian food -- it's Asian-flavored food.
The menu is heaviest on starters, with 21 choices. With the exception of 11 "dim sum" and six desserts, dishes are grouped in sets of five. Our company found the entrées better than the starters.
The "dim sum" list includes Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese-style nibbles. Scallop-Bacon Beggar's Purses offer delicate flour wrappers, flecked with black sesame seeds, containing a moist Cantonese-style forcemeat of pork ground with bacon, scallions, light soy, and ginger and amended by non-Cantonese mint, orange zest, and shiro dashi (Japanese bonito broth). Each purse supposedly contains one small bay scallop, but in two orders on two visits, we found them in only two of ten purses. The chef later explained that the scallops tend to "melt" into the filling. (Maybe he could use two little scallops instead of one? Or perhaps the sous-chefs don't always put in a scallop?) The dumplings come with a light lemongrass-sesame oil dip. Eat them while they're hot; once cool, the filling loses its attractive liquidity.
In the Dungeness Crab-Pork Spring Roll, we found more pork forcemeat (with stronger seasonings, including mint and Thai basil, inspired by the cuisine of Vietnam rather than China). The crab puréed into the filling isn't discernible, beyond adding a whisper of a seafood flavoring. The filling's foam-rubber texture reminded me of ill-made versions of Vietnamese minced shrimp on sugar cane. Coconut Katsu Chicken Tenders are fingers cut from the breast, dredged in panko with a few coconut shreds and fried whole, then sliced; some of the pieces are half naked. These come with a sauce of crushed pineapple with sambal (Indonesian chili paste) -- hot chili, fish sauce, and red onion. The pineapple tastes anemic, but it's the best anybody can hope for at this time of year.
Next on the menu are five salads. The Shredded Duck Lettuce Wraps shouldn't be missed. The lettuce is velvety butterhead, easier to roll than iceberg. The filling consists of crisp duck and shiitake shreds with minced scallions in a thin, slightly sweet, slightly spicy sauce, enlivened by more sambal and a touch of ketchup. The condiments include a mini-salad of oval cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumbers, and red onions -- and (ta-da!) a luscious banana purée with cinnamon and spicy sambal. The purée has the soft, moist texture of baba ganoush, a perfect complement to the crackly duck. On the other hand, a pretty-looking molded cone of Thai Green Papaya Salad with rock shrimp was devoid of flavor. Even the papaya shreds tasted tired and neutral rather than crisp and pleasantly sour, and the dressing lacked zest -- or hot chili heat. This dish was an omen: We later encountered others that were bland compared to their "ethnic" versions, compromised by the attempt to please all palates.
A section called "Grill" offers more small dishes and finger foods. The most spectacular choice is the Strawberry-Cinnamon Ribs -- fall-off-the-bone braised spare ribs crisped on the grill and slathered with a thick, sweet sauce redolent of cinnamon and star anise. It's a dish that the chef first ate in Ho Chi Minh City; it's changed a bit in his version. The gravy is made from cooked-down strawberries, touched with honey, miso, and Asian red vinegar; the fruit is transformed beyond recognition, resembling a gentled-down hoisin sauce. Sorry, no witticisms from the posse -- we couldn't hear each other over the din -- but we did give four thumbs up for this dish. On the other hand, while the Pineapple Kobe Beef Satay was tender, with its Snake River (Idaho) Kobe flap-steak, we were underwhelmed by the indistinct marinade and topping of pallid pineapple and minced peanuts.
The Hot Pot selections include the best dish we tasted: Red Curry Short Ribs with Pumpkin. A handsome iron pot with a wooden lid contains tender short-rib meat, stripped off the bone, and chunks of soft pumpkin and banana in a pond of thick coconut-cream curry seasoned with nutmeg and enriched with pumpkin purée. This luxuriously unique combination of flavors bespeaks its Cambodian origins, but the recipe is the chef's invention. Get it while it's hot -- it's going off-menu soon because pumpkin season is over.
Another night, we tried the Hot & Sour Jungle Shellfish Curry hot pot. It's a tasty dish, but the only true word in the title is "&." It's not hot -- the spice level is a two at most. It's only slightly sour from a shy touch of tamarind, and it's nothing like the spinach-laden (and incendiary) Thai dishes called "jungle curry" -- here, a few shreds of gai lan (Chinese broccoli greens) represent an entire rain forest. As for shellfish -- yes, there are mussels and clams, but even more salmon cubes and calamari rings. (The squid's cartilage beak and "backbone" do not an exoskeleton make.) With the truth-in-labeling issues out of the way, what do we have? A light seafood soup that tastes more Japanese than jungle -- worth ordering if you know what not to expect.