Odenton Restaurant Serves Up Authentic and Tasty Chinese Cuisine
In classic Chinese cuisine cooks strive to balance the five essential flavors: salty, sweet, hot, earthy, and sour. Anyone dining on Charm City Chinese food, however, might be forgiven for mistaking the five essentials as salty, gloppy, greasy, mushy, and bland. In a city this big, with an otherwise robust restaurant culture, why are our Chinese restaurants so uninspired or even downright awful?
I adore authentic Chinese food and keenly regret its absence in my hometown. So when rumors of a truly excellent real-deal Chinese restaurant just down I-95 reached my eager ears from several different sources I was ready for a road trip. It was a quick ride to Grace Garden, just outside the Fort Meade Army base, where Hong Kong-born owner and chef Chun Li presides over the restaurant with his wife and children.
Mrs. Li greeted us when we arrived and was very enthusiastic when we told her we wanted traditional Chinese food. Grace Garden offers two menus--one of standard Westernized dishes and a second, "Eastern" menu where the good stuff is. Mrs. Li was very helpful in walking us through the six-page menu of potential delights, and under her tutelage we ordered eight dishes, including two off-menu specials based on produce grown in her own garden.
We started with a cold dish called Sichuan beef treasures ($10.95): beef tongue, tripe, and tendon. You know you're eating authentically when the, ahem, variety meats land on your table. It was, in a word, incredible. The three kinds of meat, sliced very thin, provided three distinct textures to the dish--tender, chewy, and semicrunchy--and were tossed with scallions and chopped peanuts. The complex sauce was a masterwork: The flavor of Sichuan pepper played off of chile and sesame oils as well as anise and other adroitly applied seasonings that kept us happily tasting and guessing ingredients.
Sichuan pepper, despite its name, is not related to black peppercorns or chiles. The pepper is not hot or pungent in and of itself, but has a unique citrusy flavor and an odd propensity to slightly numb the palate, setting the stage for other spices. When used in conjunction with chile peppers it is called "ma la" or "numbing and spicy" and is the hallmark of traditional Sichuan cuisine, and when used by Chef Li it is pure heaven. The star of our impromptu banquet was the ma la fish ($15.95), a fiery stew of flounder chunks braised in a chile-powered fish stock with lots of aromatics--celery, leeks and garlic--all those flavors simultaneously propelled and restrained by the Sichuan peppers.
Next up was fish noodles ($20.95), fat, freshly made noodles with ground fish. The chunky noodles were lightly coated with a white sauce that was mild but multifaceted, barely salty, barely sweet, while slivers of smoked pork sausage and shiitake mushrooms added rich savoriness. Crunchy, salty pickled bits--daikon, perhaps?--provided a lighter counterpoint, along with sliced ginger and lots of cilantro. Every bite of this dish was a delight, its flavors so distinct but playing together so very nicely.
Working the same point-counterpoint flavor symphony was pocket tofu ($12.95), homemade tofu wrapped around minced shrimp paste. The balls of silken richness dissolved on the tongue, but their fiery bath of chile and bean paste sauce kept things interesting. Eggplant in chile-plum sauce ($9.95) was--and I mean this in the nicest possible way--essentially a Chinese moussaka. The eggplant was sautéed with ground pork in a sweetly spicy sauce, both likable, a nice switch from the other dishes we tried.
Although a very simple dish, beef short ribs in black pepper sauce is a lifelong favorite. The preparation depends only on fatty beef and a sauce containing fantastic amounts of black pepper, and it can often be obvious and boring. Grace Garden's version ($13.95), however, was riveting: The ribs were expertly seared for a deliciously caramelized, crisp exterior before being braised to the perfect point of near-tenderness in a sauce that let us enjoy the subtleties of good black pepper, its flavor undiluted by other spices.
Mrs. Li's garden delivered two picked-that-morning vegetable dishes, long beans and baby broccoli. The crisp-tender long beans ($12.95) were sautéed with chunks of salty, fatty pork belly (think bacon, only with more character) and slivers of roasted garlic and sliced ginger. Baby broccoli ($12.95) was treated simply with sliced garlic and a little sesame oil to showcase its beautiful freshness.
Chef Li's dexterity in the kitchen is simply amazing. After all, the eight dishes we sampled drew from the same handful of flavors--chiles, Sichuan pepper, ginger, sesame, garlic--but each was so skillfully rendered as to be distinctly delicious in its own right. I must echo the words of my dining companion who, sitting back after eating his way through one 10th of Grace Garden's menu, declared with wonder, "Not only is this the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life--it is one of the best meals ever."