- Walter Novak
- The Thai-inspired Satay Strip Steak, on a bed of onions and asparagus.
Fortunately, not all fusion fare is so aggressive. Take some of the dishes coming out of the kitchen at Rocky River's Pearl of the Orient: Subtle, nuanced, and approachable, they hug, rather than hijack, the taste buds.
Among them, count the kitchen's Five-Spice Calamari, bite-size bits of squid, dusted in cornstarch and a whisper of anise-y five-spice powder, then deep-fried to barely crisp perfection. Swoosh them through some homemade chile-garlic dipping sauce -- a sassy, tropical twirl of citrus and sweet heat -- and the result is a mouthwatering example of international détente.
It's no surprise when owner George Hwang credits that dish, and several others, to veteran Cleveland chef Michelle Gaw. After leaving the now-defunct Watermark several years back, Gaw spent some time consulting for Pearl, helping Hwang put a global spin on his traditional Chinese menu. Gaw's influence is apparent in everything from the spicy pineapple-lime salsa, which accompanies a starter of coconut shrimp, to the rich vanilla cheesecake, which anchors the list of homemade sweet endings.
Hwang also has added a sushi menu. While the list contains few surprises, the offerings are well executed. During a recent visit, yellowtail nigiri sushi seemed impeccably fresh and mild-flavored. And for a meat-free pal, the Vegetable Boat offered passage to veggie heaven, with its tasty cargo of avocado, tofu, wakame, mushroom, and cucumber-based sushi.
Hwang's expansionary vision didn't stop with sushi. When the 23-year-old eatery briefly closed for remodeling in 2006, the restaurateur added a handful of Thai and Vietnamese favorites. As a result, today's bill of fare is a big one: It includes fusion-inspired dishes like sliced strip steak, settled on a bed of lightly stir-fried carrots, onions, and asparagus tips, and stroked with a mild satay sauce; pad thai; pho bo (beef noodle soup); and Mongolian duck, featuring shredded house-smoked breast meat, tossed with carrots, onions, scallions, and bean sprouts, and then finished in a gingery hoisin. On the side, firm, nutty brown rice adds a wholesome touch. Or order the slender flour pancakes and try your hand at burrito building, Asian style. (Incidentally, while 23 years may seem an extraordinary life span for a restaurant, Hwang's sister, Rose Wong, holds the family record for dining-spot longevity. She opened the Pearl of the Orient location on the East Side in Shaker Heights in 1978.)
The menu wasn't the only thing to get a makeover during last year's hiatus. A window-lined dining room and pleasant, awning-covered porch have been added, bringing the seating capacity up to around 150 and contributing some artful sizzle to the space. Tables in the svelte, L-shaped dining room gleam in citrusy shades of lime and lemon, while a long faux-granite countertop can accommodate drinkers, diners, and sushi fans. Alternatively, warm-weather guests can pull up chairs to sturdy wooden tables on the shady porch and dine among a host of bloom-filled window boxes.
Beyond the salsa-making, duck-smoking, and dessert-baking, Hwang's kitchen typically uses fresh (not frozen) ingredients, eschews MSG, and cooks each dish to order. But if we have one complaint, it's that flavors are sometimes too subtle. For instance, a boring chicken, almond, and fresh-fruit stir-fry in a bland white-wine reduction was too sweet to complement the chicken, but not sweet enough to honor the fruit. And a few more fermented black beans in the underseasoned toss of scallops, shrimp, and Chinese wheat noodles (another entrée) would have added some much-needed zip.
To drink, the bar offers anything from a Mai Tai to a martini to a glass of Merlot. During our visit, the small draft-beer selection included Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold and Eliot Ness ($4.50 for a 22-ounce pour). In bottles, we spotted Tsingtao ($3.50) and Kirin Ichiban ($5.25). The moderately priced wine list includes plenty of whites, ideal for accompanying Pacific Rim fare. And a promotion that rewards wine drinkers with a $10 gift certificate for each bottle they buy is a steal.
Besides the cheesecake (good, but needlessly garnished with excess bottled dessert syrup), a well-crafted apple-caramel egg roll made an appropriately sweet ending, combining the crispness of fried wontons with a sweet, fruity burst; ask for it sided with giant scoops of green-tea ice cream from Cleveland's own Mitchell brothers for an additional touch of luxe.
That's what we did, and like a fusion-style spin on apple pie à la mode, the sweetie jumped right off the plate and into our waiting maws. But did it chase us round the table? Not for a second -- and that's just the way we like it.