At lunch time, black paper mats and red napkins are set over the mahogany tables. At dinner, ecru linens lend a dressed-up air. At either meal, the Zen-like ambiance of the Red Pearl is relaxing and, as every good restaurant should be, conducive to a pleasant eating experience.
The 200-seat restaurant on Lake Kittamaqundi, in Columbia’s Town Center, is just over a year old and quietly earning a reputation for creative, well-prepared classic and more contemporary Chinese cuisine. With virtually hundreds of mild and marginally spicier dishes from which to choose, you could dine there for months without repeating.
While Chinese fare is a perennial favorite, it seems to have been upstaged of late by the spicier approach of Thai food and the chichi appeal of Japanese hibachi and sushi. So if you’ve forgotten how good Chinese can be, a visit to the Red Pearl will remind you.
At lunch we sampled some classics: Shrimp toast ($5.50) included six wedges of shrimp-filled “French toast” liberally dunked in sesame seeds and fried to golden perfection. A tad oily, but a keeper.
Hot and sour soup ($2.95) had all the comforting ingredients you expect, in a perfectly balanced broth.
The stir-fried eggplant ($9.95) was impeccably fresh, meltingly tender, hot and just a bit spicy, while the moo shi pork ($7.50/lunch) consisted of a large portion of tender meat stir-fried with Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, tree ears and scrambled egg in a mild, somewhat salty, soy-based sauce.
We also ordered one of Chef Wu’s specialties — crispy walnut shrimp ($17.95/dinner portion). Its 10 jumbo shrimp had been battered, tempura style, then fried gently crisp outside and tender-moist inside. Crunch-glazed walnut halves added textural appeal. A housemade “mayonnaise” was drizzled over all for a surprisingly sweet finish. Interesting. Different.
If you’ve never done dim sum, think tapas. In “big-city” Chinatowns these small plates are arranged in bamboo steamers, placed on carts and rolled around the dining room, where you choose what you want from each cart as it rolls by. In the ’burbs, dim sum is pretty much reserved for the larger weekend crowd.
The Red Pearl boasts the pushcart tradition as well, but with an appealing twist. According to owner David Wong, the secret to successful dim sum is that it is freshly made and eaten hot. So on weekends and holidays, when enough customers are present to warrant the carts, they roll. On weekdays, dim sum is ordered off a 28-item menu.
Dim sum prices at lunch range from $2.99 to $4.59. At dinner, they’re $4.99 to $6.99. During a recent visit, we sampled seven Chinese “tapas.”
The steamed barbecue pork buns and the steamed Chinese sausage buns were white as snow outside and looked like the tangy filling had been stuffed into pillows of marshmallow fluff. Charming.
Our fried sesame balls were perfect sesame-studded orbs with a sweet custardlike filling that could’ve served as dessert. And the fried crescent dumplings with mild meat filling were a paean to the pastry maker’s art.
The two most unusual dim sum creations were the pair of leaf-wrapped envelopes of slightly sweet meat and sticky rice (we fought over this offering) and the steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce, which was not a success because the ribs were tiny, bony morsels without much meat, and seemingly lacking the bean sauce. (It’s possible that our really good server wrote down the wrong order number for this; just above it on the menu is Fung-Jeow, aka steamed chicken feet with chef’s sauce. Hmm.)
We loved the little almond cookies that came with the check. An outdoor dining area is in the works, possibly for 2012.
Red Pearl, 10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia. 410-715-6530 or www.redpearlrestaurant.com.