East Pearl

Chinese
$$$$ ($15-$24)
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Editorial Review

Two menus, both artfully appealing

By Tim Carman
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

For those of us who have come to accept the low-budget decor of our favorite Chinese eateries along Rockville Pike, the interior of the East Pearl will come as something of a shock. The 86-seat dining room, with its calming sherbet-orange hues, exudes the industrial, open-air-duct opulence of restaurants in far tonier neighborhoods.

The dishware dares to venture beyond the merely functional as well: elegant white soup bowls (with saucers), square plates with shallow hollows for entrees and modern silver teapots shaped like flower pots. Even the Dutch-themed service plates provide a welcome splash of color at the table, not to mention cultural dissonance. Someone here is clearly aiming to raise the expectations for Chinese restaurants in Rockville.

That someone would be owner Sue Li, who was last seen overseeing the sprawling China Chef eatery in Wheaton before she sold the property in 2006 and devoted the next few years to her family. Li returned to restaurants in February with East Pearl, a Hong Kong-style establishment that features two separate menus, one of them devoted mostly to noodle soups, congee and roast duck and chicken. Li's devotion to her twin-menu concept is so complete that she has built separate kitchens for each.

The roast duck here is not the Peking kind, with crisp pieces of skin and flesh swaddled in soft pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce. No, these thick, bone-in sections tantalize the nostrils with their sweet, spicy aromatics that smack of Chinese five-spice powder; the manual dexterity required to hold the bony pieces with chopsticks and extract the meat is duly rewarded with bites of rich, succulent flesh. The Lai wan congee pays different dividends: it's a mild, almost milky gruel in which the kitchen has buried little bursts of flavor (salty peanuts, pig skin) or texture (crunchy squid).

Best as I can tell, the true art of East Pearl lies in the kitchens' ability to roll out wonton wrappers (so light, so thin, so delicious when concealing your protein of choice) and to develop broths (so clear, so fragrant, so superior to those fat, chewy, essentially tasteless noodles that Li orders from New York).

The truth is, given the almost-geological strata of East Pearl's menus, I have only begun to skim the extreme outer layer of the potential treasures here. I look forward to digging deeper, but I might wait. Li has yet to apply for a liquor license and doesn't expect to secure one for six to eight months.