The duck flies high downtown

Restaurant: Joe's Peking Duck House definitely knows how to prepare its signature dish -- and much more.

May 09, 1999|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I suppose the owners of the new Joe's Peking Duck House could have picked a worse spot to open, but it's hard to see how. Thirty years ago, this neighborhood was the closest thing Baltimore had to a Chinatown. But no longer. The other Asian restaurants have closed or moved away.

So here's this pretty restaurant with what surely must be the most extensive and interesting menu in the city and an excellent chef in the kitchen -- and no customers. To make matters worse, it doesn't have a liquor license.

But after tasting the specialty of the house -- Peking duck, obviously -- I wouldn't go anywhere else for it. In fact, I was so entranced by the duck I had a hard time making myself try any of the other food we ordered.

The centerpiece of the meal was the "Peking duck (two courses)" for $28, enough for four people. First came a plate filled with slices of succulent duck meat, crisped mahogany skin and carved scallions. The waitress will show you how to take a delicate Peking doily, or pancake; spread it with spicy-sweet hoisin sauce; fill it with duck, crisp skin and scallion; and roll it up to create an irresistible combination of tastes and textures.

The second course consisted of boneless duck meat with just-tender Chinese vegetables in a dark, subtly seasoned sauce. I would have been more interested if I hadn't eaten more than my share of those fat little pancakes.

And, to be honest, a rich seafood soup had preceded the duck. We thought we had ordered one bowl, but the soup arrived in a tureen with a bowl for each. The blazing-hot egg drop broth was chock-full of shrimp, scallops, fish and squid.

And then we had to try at least one of the dim sum -- so few places make these tasty morsels daily. It was hard to resist the delicate steamed shrimp dumplings with their sheer dipping sauce. Even better -- in fact, irresistible -- were the fried stuffed shrimp rolls, golden-crusted cubes filled with shrimp, with the crunch and fresh taste of water chestnuts.

I haven't even mentioned the fact that the second specialty of the house is Hong Kong Style Suckling Piglets, which translated into an appetizer of honey-edged slivers of juicy pork. So you can see when I say I didn't have much room for the rest of the dinner because of the Peking duck -- well, that wasn't quite so.

When the kitchen cooks what it thinks will appeal to American tastes, such as a dish of scallops and shrimp with mixed vegetables, the results are acceptable but not extraordinary. Explore some of the more unusual offerings, like abalone with bok choy, and you'll be impressed. The tender-chewy mollusk has an astounding texture, an interesting contrast with the tender-crunchy vegetable and delicate white sauce.

We had ordered a lot of food for four people (and had eaten a surprising amount of it), so we ended our meal with the orange slices and fortune cookies that came with the check.

On that Wednesday evening, we were the only ones eating in the large dining room, although several people came in for takeout orders. Lunches and Sundays are busier, the manager told us -- Sundays because that's when native Chinese eat there.

JOE'S PEKING

DUCK HOUSE

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

Where: 323 Park Ave.

Hours: Open every day for lunch, dinner and dim sum

Prices: Appetizers, $1.10-$8.95; main courses, $14.95

Call: 410-539-5666

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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