There is much to like about the new Jesse Wong's Hong Kong, overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia.
From chairs on the patio or tables just inside the plate glass walls, the lakeside location offers some of the area's most serene views. Water is also a theme inside, where a large aquarium dominates the back wall.
The menu seems exhaustive, the bar is lively, the welcome is friendly and dinner is served until 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. on weekends.
The owner and staff at Jesse Wong's Hong Kong hope they have found a way to break what seems to be a jinx on this particular space and its revolving restaurant occupants.
So far, it seems to be working.
Of course, Jesse Wong, a Malaysian native who came to this country more than 20 years ago to work at Mr. K's in downtown Washington, has something of a winning record in Columbia. He was a founder of the widely popular Hunan Manor, which he left more than six years ago when he opened his critically acclaimed Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro on Centre Park Drive.
With Hong Kong, Wong has taken a new direction from the quiet and elegant Bistro. Hong Kong is bright and bustling, like its namesake city. And while the menu includes Szechuan and Hunan dishes, it concentrates on Cantonese cooking and its seemingly endless varieties of dishes.
Wong wants Hong Kong to be one of the premier Cantonese restaurants on the East Coast, and to make that happen, he wooed his dim sum chef out of retirement and imported his main chef from Hong Kong. Two visits, separated by six weeks, reveal a still-evolving restaurant where everyone seems to be working hard to live up to Wong's aspirations.
The service seems disjointed at times, and, on my first visit, the waiter was sullen. On a later visit for lunch, the service was enthusiastic but hardly polished.
The space is large and the surfaces are hard, so the noise level precludes intimate conversations. But many restaurants in Hong Kong are like that, too. You go for the food.
Yet two visits, even when several colleagues come along, can barely scratch the surface of Hong Kong's bountiful offerings. There are five dozen items on the printed dim sum menu and more than 200 on the regular menu.
Among the 20 dishes I have sampled there have been some hits, some misses and a couple of stars. But there are at least 50 more dishes I would like to try. One of the biggest problems at Hong Kong is deciding what to order. Dim sum, traditional Cantonese snacks eaten with tea in the late morning or early afternoon, are offered only at lunch here. These are small servings, similar to Spanish tapas. During the week, they are ordered from a printed menu. On Saturdays and Sundays, dim sum selections are served from roving carts: Spy something that looks good and ask for a serving. And often there are more than the 60 items on the printed menu.
During the week, there is also a luncheon buffet, which offers selections from both the dim sum and regular menus. Those choices change daily.
On weekdays, and after 3 p.m. on weekends, there is also a book-size menu from which to select dishes. Pan-fried meat dumplings, crispy won tons with shrimp and steamed barbecue buns were the stars of the dim sum offerings that we sampled. The dumplings, slightly piquant pork filling in a thin wrapping, were neither doughy nor crisp and a perfect complement to the bread dough consistency of the steamed bun. The crispy shrimp won tons encased a cooked shrimp paste and were accented with a bright-tasting ginger and sesame sauce.
Both the lumpia, a version of the egg roll served as an appetizer in the evening, and the Shanghai spring rolls on the dim sum menu were nicely crisp on the outside, but neither their contents nor the accompanying sauces had much spark.
There are a dozen soup choices, including a lackluster Szechuan hot and sour offering and a more interesting shredded duck and shiitake mushroom soup, which was thick with the named ingredients but needed soy sauce or salt to bring out its full flavor.
Crispy soft-shell crabs, tempura-light and piled high on a plate, didn't really need the accompanying garlic sauce to be a luncheon star. Chicken with fresh asparagus included copious amounts of bright green, almost crunchy asparagus with slices of chicken in a rich brown sauce.
Hunan shrimp, vivid with vegetables among the jumbo shrimp, was pungent but not overwhelmingly spicy, and the shellfish were fresh. The only lunch disappointment was the crispy, spicy beef, which was neither. It was more like shreds of candied beef, heavy with the texture of a binder such as cornstarch.
Salt-baked shrimp, squid and scallops, part of a late evening meal, were lightly crispy with a pleasant undertone of salt. Lobster in ginger sauce was perfectly cooked yet difficult to eat. The lobster, cut into pieces, was still in the shell, and freeing the meat with chopsticks was more than a little daunting. The star of dinner was the platter of Szechuan string beans, zesty with the bite of red chilies that still allowed the taste of the beans to shine.
While there are sweet selections among the dim sum, some of the dessert selections have an unusual American twist. Hong Kong Vice President Rick Langford explained that Wong has been taking pastry-making lessons from recently retired White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, thus the appearance of tarts and cheesecake on the dessert menu.
I found the cheesecake a little dry and too cheesy, but the chocolate mousse cake was divine. And the pineapple sorbet, served in a scooped-out pineapple half and tasting just like the fruit itself, was the star.
Jesse Wong's Hong Kong 10215 Wincopin Cir. (Columbia Lakefront), Columbia, 410-964-9088. Reservations recommended. Appetizers, $2.95 to $24.95. Main courses at lunch, $5.50 to $28. Main courses at dinner, $7.50 to $28. Hours for lunch and dim sum: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Hours for dinner: 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
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