The Hickory Ridge Village Center has a lot to offer. The ambience there seems light, airy and contemporary when not a few of Columbia's commercial centers are looking rather tired these days.
One of the center's long-time residents (since 1993, we're told, but it seems longer) is keeping up with the Hickory Ridge outside ambience with a charming new décor inside. Today's Peking Chef isn't exactly Zen, but the 130-seat restaurant provides a lovely, relaxed interior, with epoxy-topped wooden tables and wooden chairs in the center of the dining room, and booths along the sides. Potted plants are arranged just so and sheers at the windows are imprinted with bamboo canes.
Even overhead is attractive, with soft colors, curving shapes and wooden grids hanging a bit beneath the ceiling itself. Quiet New Age music plays softly in the background. Indeed, the only jarring note are several huge, high-definition televisions hung here and there. But if your date can be persuaded to eat out with you because he (or she) can still watch "the game," then Peking Chef graciously bows to that American custom as well.
The décor seems to reflect the relatively new addition of Japanese cuisine to the original "contemporary" Chinese concept of offering Hunan- and Szechuan-style dishes along with the traditional Cantonese approach that was the first experience most of us had with Chinese food.
We are happy to report that the Peking Chef kitchen is as good as we remember from our visits well over a decade ago, and that the addition of Japanese fare (with a sushi chef holding court at his own "bar,") is an added attraction for those who like to appetize on sushi and sashimi, seaweed salad and edameme.
Seafood and beef
The main Peking Chef menu is traditional. That is, quite large and varied, with appetizers, soups, "chef's" selections/special dishes, and myriad individual categories of offerings featuring seafood, beef, chicken, pork, poultry, lamb, even duck. Plus tempting veggies, including tofu stir-fries. Plus fried rice and noodles. And a six-choice selection of egg foo young creations.
The Japanese menu is a separate hand-out listing 10 different appetizers and dozens of sushi and sashimi selections, geared to seafood and vegetable lovers.
Two of our quartet that recent Tuesday evening thoroughly enjoy Japanese food, while the other two are Chinese food aficionados (although one was willing to try the seaweed salad and edameme). The consequence was that we got a yummy sampling of old and new Chinese, along with some popular Japanese dishes.
What could be more traditionally Chinese than an appetizer pu pu platter for two ($9.95)? The generous offering came in a compartmentalized wooden bowl with a mini hibachi in the center, so we could heat up the spare ribs, the spring rolls, the shrimp toasts, even the cream cheese-filled crispy wontons if we wished. The mild "barbecued" spare ribs were meaty (and fatty) and tender/chewy; the shrimp toast crisp and oily (as is typical), the wontons crunchy and creamy, the spring rolls crisp and flaky on the outside and full of veggies within. Just right, especially since we also decided to share an additional serving of those big barbecued spare ribs ($5.95/4).
All of the dishes we sampled were nicely presented but the Japanese dishes seemed even more attractive. The seaweed salad ($6.95), for instance, featured a Mt. Fuji shaped arrangement of vermicelli size carrots beneath the two-tone seaweed, beneath a small cap of crunchy fish roe. Ample sesame seeds added their mellow flavor, while a bit of hot pepper perked up the taste buds.
Edameme ($3.95) were hot, lightly salted and with a bit of crunch still left in them as you used your teeth to draw the soy beans from their pods.
We sampled a pair of sushi offerings: a spicy tuna roll ($5.75/6 pieces) and the Columbia roll ($12.95/8), a shrimp tempura roll topped with spicy tuna. Both were presented on the same white platter that had been artistically decorated with a lovely bonsai "tree" piped and dotted in two-tone sauces. The spicy tuna, with tuna inside seaweed inside sticky rice, could have been spicier. The Columbia roll was quite good, with the crispness of tempura-fried shrimp inside. The spicy tuna atop, however, was rather mushy, as if it had been frozen somewhere along the way.
Chinese for all
We turned to the main menu for our entrée selections, choosing beef, chicken and chicken as protein sources, eggplant as a veggie, and lo mein for "comfort." All portions were generous, nicely combining the promised "meat" with such colorful addenda as steamed bright green broccoli. Service, by the way, was very attentive, and coordination between kitchen and front of the house well timed, so that most everything came at the right time, all freshly "wokked" and hot.
Shrimp with cashews ($10.95) featured medium-size crustaceans, still crisp-tender, along with plenty of rich, lightly crunchy cashews and peas, plus some scallions and a light stir-fry sauce.
Sesame chicken ($10.50) boasted large, plump, tender batter-fried white meat chicken in a honey-tinged sweet sauce (and plenty of sesame seeds), with un-sauced steamed broccoli provided, for color and textural contrast.
Spicy beef with onions ($11.50) arrived on a sizzling plate and afforded plenty of tender, juicy beef strips, plus onions in a deep brown sauce that wasn't quite spicy enough for our taster.
Our vegetable lo mein ($7.95) boasted several positive features: an ample portion, lightly sauced, with carrots, julienne green beans, scallions and more, still crisp enough to maintain their "integrity."
And lastly, crispy eggplant ($8.95). The best version we've tried. The batter-fried eggplant was impeccably fresh tasting, earthy and tender inside its lightly crisped coating. And the flavorful sauce that is standard for this dish was quite good and, happily, not applied to the eggplant until just before being brought to our table, so the wonderful veggie still had some "tooth" to it.
We agreed that the triple enticements of a lovely, renovated dining room, a regular menu replete with now-traditional Chinese favorites, and the addition of Japanese fare (if you don't favor sushi, at least try some of the Japanese appetizers) can make for a winning combination.
Add to those attractions a talented kitchen, good service reasonable prices, (and those televisions, of course) and it would seem that owner Sandy Sung has done quite well keeping up with the times.
Peking Chef (410-531-2828; http://www.pekingchefmd.com is at 6420 Freetown Road, in the Hickory Ridge Village Center, Columbia.