The only dish we tried from the Noodle & Rice section was Mee Goreng, Indonesian-style pan-fried noodles, here mixed with sweet Chinese lap chong sausage and balls of pork forcemeat (like that in the Beggars' Purses), plus the usual odds and ends. The noodles are dressed with a slightly greasy, faintly sweet curry sauce. We found the combination depressing. After this and the papaya salad, I didn't have the stomach to try the chef's Pad Thai. However, another untried dish made my list for next time: Udon noodles with pork belly (unsmoked bacon, much prized in China) and fried egg in a smoky miso sauce sounds like a bowlful of adventure.
Wok-Fired dishes are next on the list. Here, the pick hit is Five-Spice Braised Pork and Lychees, made with long-braised, tender chunks of Kurubota pork (the pig equivalent of Kobe beef) from the cheek -- a cut that stews up moist and rich. It pairs off with a delicate sauce dotted with canned lychees, an aggressively sweet-sharp Asian fruit with a mustardlike undertone. Rounding out the flavors are gai lan greens, scallions, chopped water chestnuts, and black sesame seeds. The effect is light and savory-sweet.
Chili Garlic Shrimp proved vibrant, if salty: Soaked in salt water to soften the shells, the shrimp are wokked unpeeled. The shells, all but the tail pieces, melt away in the heat, leaving a smoky maritime flavor on the plump and tender prawns. (If you want to try this at home, kids, you'll need very fresh, never-frozen thin-shelled shrimp, such as Thai tiger prawns.) The dish is finished with a sweet-hot-garlicky sauce and garnishes of chopped long beans and baby corn on the cob.
I found Shaking Kobe Beef less satisfactory, a walk on the mild side compared to the lively versions you can find at good Vietnamese restaurants (e.g., Le Bambou in Del Mar, not to mention the definitive rendition at Slanted Door in San Francisco). Kobe or no, the beef slices are chewy, with sinewy bits. They mingle with diced red papaya, tomato, red onions, and white sesame seeds. So far, pretty good -- but the sauce is nondescript, lacking the assertive black pepper and caramelized sugar flavors that are the raisons d'être of this dish. Another evening's wok dish of Ginger-Scallion Scallops and Snow Peas proved a standard combination. Flaccid dry-pack Maine scallops were garnished with stemmy, near-leafless pea shoots, along with stringy pods picked past their prime. (All veggies here come from two large purveyors based in L.A.) The mild, thin sauce tasted as if it might be based on vegetable broth rather than the hearty chicken stock of Cantonese restaurants.
Vegetable side dishes are worth every penny of their modest price. I don't know what the Chinese province of Yunnan (famed for its hams) contributed to Chili-Roasted Yunnan Yams -- but the crisp-soft cubes dusted with spice powder and touched with garlic yogurt are irresistible. Garlic Chinese eggplant slices are soft but crackly and caramelized at the edges, robed in an oily Szechwan-style sauce dotted with hot pepper seeds. Oddly, the spicing recedes after the first bite. Although the menu includes only one vegetarian dish each among the dim sum, salads, and main courses (a tofu hot pot), the generously sized sides -- which also include Asian greens, dry-sautéed long beans, and roasted edamame -- amply fill the gap.
The staff is large and well trained. Servers seem enthusiastic, bussers circulate to whisk away dishes as soon as you're done, and a charming floor manager makes regular rounds to ensure that everyone's taken care of. There's even a helpful sommelier who can help you navigate the unconventional wine choices.
Desserts, called "Happy Ending," are provided by the corporation, but they're charming, too. The lightest is a pear poached in sake with a scoop of zingy ginger ice cream and a fig-nut cookie. The menu says it comes with pomegranate, but it arrived with sliced kiwis instead. We forgave it -- although pomegranate would be more interesting. Passion Fruit Andagi are fresh-made, airy donut puffs (resembling Hawaiian malasada) set atop a tangy passionfruit cream sauce with a scoop of superb coconut ice cream served alongside. Cardamom custard is rich, more pot de crème than panna cotta. It tastes exotic with chopped lychees on the side and a plum wine glaze on the plate. Banana cake is light and homey, plated over jasmine caramel (be sure to inhale its spicy-floral aroma) and comes with chai-spiced ice cream. Chocoholics will also find a chocolate soufflé with Mandarin ice cream, which we didn't try. Or you can just go for ice cream (from Gelato Paradiso) in any of these inventive flavors as well as the conventional chocolate and vanilla. Even if Asians don't eat dessert, Americans do and should be pleased with this assortment. You may have to pick your way through the menu to enjoy Red Pearl's most lustrous gems, but the sweets are all good.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"Cooking was a hobby that grew into my profession," says Jason Marcus, aged 26. He grew up in New Jersey in a family of passionate gourmands. Everyone loved to cook, but the family also ate out frequently at New York's ethnic and "fine food" restaurants. "Food is an integral part of my upbringing," he says. "By the end of high school, it was important to me to do something that had some civic responsibility. Cooking was always something that made people happy."
He majored in philosophy and leadership studies at University of Richmond (Virginia). "When I was in school, I did a little professional cooking -- I'd do some catering for professors' parties," he says. He toured Europe during junior year, before a semester at Oxford and subsequent internships in law, finance, and political science. "It was always assumed I was going to go into law or something like that, but when I graduated school [in 2001], I told my parents I wanted to take some months to give cooking a shot. It was always something knocking at my tongue. No one thought I was going to do it until I did it. I don't know what it was like 20 years ago to be a chef, but right now -- intellectually, artistically, philosophically -- one can really pursue this profession as far as one wants."