Jesse Wong's Hong Kong adventure

Dip into dim sum, try the traditional fare, or go for something truly different

Sunday Gourmet

September 12, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

It was a bold move on Jesse Wong's part. The restaurants that have succeeded in Columbia have usually been chains -- places with food that appeals to a broad customer base, the lowest-common-denominator approach to the restaurant business. So what does Wong, the owner of the pan-Asian Asean Bistro, do for an encore? He opens a new Chinese restaurant on Lake Kittamaqundi that has dishes like frog meat with X.O. sauce, pig's intestine and sour cabbage, and Chinese chives sauteed with pork blood. (Of course, you can also get wonton soup and honey sesame shrimp.)

The new restaurant's menu rivals a physics textbook in heft and complexity, with treatises on China's culinary heritage, tea-time traditions and geographical areas. It has 13 pages of dishes. No problem if you aren't in a hurry to eat.

When you realize there's so much to choose from you can't possibly decide, the waitress will come over to suggest one of the prix fixe meals to simplify your life. I love the fact that these are the only dishes on the menu that are written in Chinese with no translations. All you know for sure is that dinner for four will cost you $68.

On the one hand, you have to applaud the authenticity of the kitchen. On the other hand, the place needs a Chinese customer base, or at least enough adventuresome diners, if it's going to succeed. The night we were there, everyone seemed to be happily eating egg rolls and stir-fried beef with broccoli.

Enter the Large party -- under an assumed name, of course.

We were ready to try pan-fried radish pudding (a soft-centered, mild-flavored rectangle something like pan-fried grits). We leapt at the chance to order salted baked frog meat with butter and chili. (The kitchen was out of frog meat.) We ignored the Chinese chives sauteed with pork blood.

With the help of our very nice waitress we finally managed to figure out what we wanted. As hard as it is to generalize about this large a menu, given that four people can order only so much, I would say the kitchen's strength is dim sum. These are the items that become appetizers at dinnertime. Saturday, Sunday and holidays they are served off a cart for the true dim sum experience.

We ate much too much of the steamed pork buns, delicious white sponges filled with shredded barbecued pork. We admired the har kow shrimp in their translucent rice noodle wrappers for about five seconds before we scarfed them up. The Hong Kong-style wonton soup our waitress recommended with dumplings and spinach won us over with its delicacy.

If we had stopped there, we would have been perfectly happy. But the pan-fried Chilean sea bass with dry bean sauce turned out to be cod -- with no advance warning. The finely chopped, quite salty soy beans lay in an ungainly brown mass on top.

The beef short ribs with black-pepper sauce hadn't been cooked long enough to fall off the bone, so they were impossible to eat with chopsticks. We needed knives. The black pepper overpowered any other flavors in the thick brown sauce.

A dish of longevity noodles was a bit greasy and had a minimum of the promised chicken and shrimp, and almost no vegetables. And it was unattractively brown as well. I'd settle for a shorter life and better pasta.

Only a dish our waitress suggested in place of the frog meat had the visual appeal you expect with Chinese cuisine. These were plump shrimp, scallops and bright-green asparagus in an X.O. sauce, which is made of dried shrimp and scallops and lots of garlic. Good, but I could have done with more than one cut-up stalk of asparagus.

Wong may be trying to give his customers lots of authentic Chinese choices, but when it comes to dessert he knows Americans want chocolate mousse, cheesecake, and pecan and fruit tarts. The tarts, at least, were made that day by the chef, our waitress promised. They were beautiful, but a bit overwhelming after such a heavy meal. You may want to stick to the sorbets.

This is a spot where several restaurants have been before. The dining room is huge, with tables bare of tablecloths and a buffet set up in back. It would be uninviting except for its bright colors. Eating outside looking over the water was more appealing, but the host warned us about bees and mosquitoes. We stayed inside.

The good news is that at Jesse Wong's Hong Kong you can get dishes that simply aren't available at other Chinese restaurants unless you special order them. That's assuming they're available here, of course; the lack of frog meat makes me a little skeptical. The even better news is that you don't have to order fish maw potage unless you really want to. There are plenty of options for everyone.

Jesse Wong's Hong Kong

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$24.95; entrees: $9.95-$28

Call: 410-964-9088

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