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.
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."
With no formal training, he found an apprenticeship at Sunset Beach restaurant in Shelter Island, New York City, where he learned the basics before working under the renowned Bill Telepan at Judson Grill. In 2002, he took off for three months to travel along the Mekong River, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and southern Thailand. "Every day I was learning. I was discovering something new, eating delightful food. Vietnam is one of my homes away from home."
He went on to cook under chef David Kinch at the acclaimed Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos (near Santa Cruz). "It was the most amazing restaurant I'd been to, ever. David was intrigued with new techniques, with avant-garde flavor combinations. But most of the chefs there were trained in classical French techniques as well. It was really a great experience for me, but it's in a small town, and there wasn't enough for the other side of my life there." He moved to New York City to work at Punch and Judy, where he sought to create original dishes. "My idea was, don't do anything anyone else is doing. The owners were looking for someone with a lot of energy and passion and let me do pretty much whatever I felt like doing. It really was a dream."
Returning to California as chef de cuisine at Los Angeles's Meson G, he was offered the position of executive chef at Red Pearl Kitchen. Before the new restaurant opened, he spent a month observing at the Huntington Beach flagship, but for the San Diego location, he was given largely free rein to create his own Asian menu. "I didn't know much about San Diego before I came here. I wouldn't have done it if it was in a big city like Los Angeles or New York, but I knew there would be nothing like it here, nothing like the menu that we were putting together. I was excited about coming to a town that would appreciate us being here. I felt like I could really make a difference.
"It's fun -- it's fun and at the same time it's difficult to learn about all these ingredients and how they work together. I take some sort of pride in recreating dishes that do exist somewhere else in the world, even if they're not quite the same...I love Asian food, and I want people to fall in love with what I fell in love with. It's like feel-good cuisine to me. I would love if these dishes became part of the pantheon of comforting, familiar food. It's got to become a part of you. As long as these dishes are still considered exotic, different, not normal, it's hard for the food community to really grow...In this country, we need to learn a little more about eating. I think it's important for the food community as chefs, for the food community as diners, for us, in general, as people who eat."