If You Know Where to Look, Paul Chen Hong Kong Restaurant Can Offer an Adventure or Two
We begin our review of Paul Chen Hong Kong Restaurant with an encomium for Chinatown Café, that superb downtown restaurant that has turned many Baltimore palates on to Hong Kong cuisine. Something different? How about shark's fin soup, fresh conch, or "froggy" stir-fried with tender leek shoots, or steamed eel with black bean sauce? No? Then go for daily dim sum or the selection of Hong Kong noodle dishes or, for the least adventurous, the menu of standard Szechuan-Hunan cuisine, available at cut-rate prices for lunch. I realize it's not polite to appreciate an ethnic group as a gauge for culinary authenticity, but I can't think of any other way to say this: Chinese people eat here. (Memo to William Donald Schaefer: English is spoken.)
Paul Chen occupies the lower Charles Village space originally home to the storied Jimmy Woo's, the city's pioneering Cantonese restaurant. The ambiance now: plastic flowers and pink tablecloths; the (now empty) lunch buffet straddling the center of the dining room; and a continuous soundtrack of hits like "Bad Girls" and "Hernando's Hideaway" transposed for player piano.
The menu, at first, disappointed us. Where were the pan-seared prawns, the Hong Kong-style clams? Where was froggy? Unreasonably we had induced an entire cuisine from our experiences at one restaurant. (It's not like we've actually been to Hong Kong.) Still, the choices at Paul Chen looked, at first glance, a lot like the menu at about a million other Chinese restaurants we've been to: kung pao beef, moo shu beef, General Tso's chicken. (And then again, the definitive thing about Hong Kong cuisine is that it borrows from everywhere, including Szechuan and Hunan.)
On closer inspection, though, differences emerged--a few more duck entrées than usual, a sprinkling of entrées identified as Hong Kong specialties. But mostly we were left to flail about for something unusual. For our appetizers, we tried some fried crabmeat won tons ($3.95), meat dumplings, both pan-fried and steamed ($3.95), and, at our server's suggestion, an order of teriyaki beef on a stick ($4.50). The won tons were consumed without much comment. They tasted like we expected them to but had creditable crispiness and crab flavor. The dumplings were divine. A side-by-side comparison proved to us, once and for all, that years of monkish devotion to steamed dumplings were years wasted. The glutinous wrappers achieve their destiny when fried up, and the plump fillings seem to burst with more flavor. We liked the braised flavors of the tough and sizable teriyaki beef, which we were allowed to heat further over a tiny flame.
Soups persuaded no one. The king crabmeat with asparagus soup ($4.95) and the minced chicken with corn soup ($1.75) tasted as though they were made from the same salty egg broth. Nice, peak-of-season green asparagus tips would have made a prettier presentation than the white stalks we found; fresh corn would have perked up the other soup. Hot and sour soup ($1.95) was pronounced decent.
We're recommending the steamed whole fish with ginger and scallion ($17.95). A big, fresh, beautiful flounder came to us with its sweet, tender meat simmering in a satisfying, carefully calibrated ginger sauce. Also chosen from the menu of chef's specialties was a platter of fresh scallops and shrimp in garlic sauce ($13.95), which had been sautéed in a slightly too sweet wine-garlic sauce with water chestnuts and silky, chewy, black lichen. We were satisfied with the quantity and freshness of the seafood, but the sauce, not garlicky enough, did leave us cold.
Kung pao lamb ($12.95) was a winner. The meat was tender and plentiful, and the accompanying vegetables--carrots, red and green bell peppers, broccoli, celery--were both more varied and fresher-seeming than we typically find. We also liked our sizzling platter, the Hong Kong steak ($12.95)--think of it as a variation of General Tso's chicken and you'd have the idea. Bulky hunks of flank steak were first flour-coated and fried, then sautéed in a sturdy brown sauce with more of Paul Chen's fresh, colorful vegetables. Plus it sizzles. Our favorite dish was the Peking duck. One half-order ($11.95) yielded enough crispy skin and ducky meat for five staff-rolled pancakes, and then some.
The restaurant appeared to be doing steady carry-out business when we visited, which is a good sign. And while there's no urgent reason to go to Paul Chen--our heart still belongs to Chinatown Café--we enjoyed the challenge of finding dishes and preparations that were at least a little unusual.