When you walk into a restaurant constructed to resemble an Alpine chalet, it would be reasonable to expect a meal of bubbling fondue served next to a cheering fire, or perhaps Rocky Mountain oysters disguised in a dizzying array of presentations to entice the squeamish.
But at a ski lodge in Duluth? You get dim sum. And if you order shrewdly, some of the finest Chinese food in the metro area.
East Pearl apparently inherited this oddball building next to Home Depot from a defunct pizza joint. (Don't ask me to decode that concept, either.) The wooden beams and vaunted ceiling look unchanged from its original form, though the back wall of the large dining room has been outfitted with the traditional phoenix-and-dragon image required for Chinese wedding banquets. Sea creatures swimming, slithering and crawling in aquariums now flank both sides of the restaurant's entrance.
But on a recent weekend, I amorously spy the one change to the lodge-esque landscape that I've journeyed from inside the Perimeter to gaze upon: the wooden tofu bucket.
Seven months ago, I penned a review of China Delight, a restaurant just off Buford Highway that was doing big dim sum business in the wake of Canton House's temporary demise. The discovery I most treasured there was sublimely silken tofu served hot from a wooden bucket and soused with a ginger syrup that giddily tingled in the mouth.
The quality of Atlanta dim sum eateries notoriously bobs up and down; the area's Chinese chefs apparently like to play musical restaurants. When China Delight drooped in distinction a couple months back -- its dumplings a little too dry or a tad too thick, the previously etherial tofu served tepid -- I wondered what had happened. Reports soon surfaced among my dim sum amigos that a tofu bucket was sighted in Duluth. Time to take a Sunday detour. ...
Paydirt. The pork siu mai dumplings radiate a familiar glossy immediacy. Shrimp and scallop har gau shimmy with a translucent wrapper that dissolves on the tongue to yield plump chunks of seafood. The meaty fillings steamed inside blocks of rice wrapped in the traditional lotus leaf offer a cleaner, less murky taste than they often do.
It is gleefully obvious from these first few bites why East Pearl's clientele is overwhelmingly Asian. These folks gravitate to the distinguished chow.
The gift of dim sum chef Jian H. Jiang, who was indeed previously employed by China Delight, resides in his ability to make standard offerings hum with an unusual clarity. Char siu bau, the fluffy bun typically stuffed with vague shards of pork, have actual layers of barbecued meat inside them. A variation of shrimp and vegetable dumplings sporting outrageously green wrappers offer a delicate zing of ginger.
And speaking of ginger, yes, the hot tofu delivers the custardy, fleetingly sweet pleasure I remember from last summer. Even the surly woman manning the bucket, who fortunately is an anomaly among the staff, could not diminish my blissful reunion.
Tofu aside, the common assortment of shrimp balls, wide rice noodles, stuffed eggplant and wobbly desserts won't surprise dim sum regulars -- savoring the precision that goes into the creation of these morsels is what makes East Pearl a destination.
A plate of small but startlingly fresh shrimp from the tank out front, however, clues me in that dinner needs to be explored here as well.
Our server is tossing out the typical safe suggestions provided to non-Asian customers.
"Try the beef with oyster sauce," he emphatically suggests. "This is the American menu," he adds, pointing to a piece of blue paper pushed to the corner of the table.
But I'm busy perusing the other menu -- the hardbound tome with more than 170 different choices. "No, thanks," I respond. "Let's get jellyfish head and the cured boneless pork shank instead."
Those are just to be rebellious. Most of our meal consists of truer Chinese dishes that any mildly adventurous palate would appreciate. OK, so a lovely soup striated with crab meat and studded with fish maw -- dried stomach lining -- might not fall into that category, but plenty else does.
The dinnertime crowd is downright dull compared to the denizens of dim sum. Scattered tables of solo diners and small families can't distract from the IHOP decor like intriguing metal carts weaving through the room can.
Food zips out of the kitchen, one course after another. Large oysters arrive cooked two ways: battered and deep-fried with a surprisingly complex sweet-n-sour sauce, and then steamed and topped with a garlicky black bean sauce, which melds with the oyster's liquor to produce a singular flavor of earth and sea, soy sauce and oceanic salinity. Lovely.
Peking duck is the most memorable I've had since dining with Chinese friends in Boston's Chinatown during college. Crispy lacquered skin gives way to tender, robust meat. The pancakes into which you fold the duck are thick and silky to the touch, not once-frozen flour tortillas like so many places wretchedly serve. Freckled with slices of green onion and dabbed with hoisin sauce, each bite zigzags to a different, distinctive nuance.
Finally, a whole black grouper, plucked from its watery waiting room, appears steamed in a combination of oyster and fish sauces, strewn with scallions. Our server adroitly debones the fish, spoons sauce over its soft, loamy flesh and then retrieves our side dish of snow pea leaves sauteed with cloves of roasted garlic. Who needs jellyfish head? (It was, admittedly, unsettlingly crispy yet gelatinous.)
"Mango pudding for dessert?" our server plies. No, thanks. I'll just bask in the restaurant's savory glories tonight. Most Chinese restaurants are known either for dim sum or dinner. East Pearl is the rare exception that excels at both.
If only I could get past the nonsensical mountain motif, forever awaiting snowy slopes and ski bunnies in the midst of suburbia. Maybe, for continuity, they could add some Himalayan specialties to the menu?
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