Dim sum. Crispy duck. Noodles. All of it is served with style at Peony Kitchen, in Bellevue’s The Meyden complex.
Pork belly is on a lot of restaurant menus these days; ditto for dumplings and duck. At a Chinese restaurant you’d expect to find all three, but you seldom see them presented with the panache that Peony Kitchen brings to the table.
Their Tung Po pork belly arrives in the petite lidded pot it’s cooked in, kept warm over a candle that continues to thicken and caramelize the dark, ginger and soy sauce. Using the tips of scissors, the waiter cuts the tender, square slab into pieces small enough to tuck into the folds of sweet, steamed buns. You get three; you’ll want to order extra.
You’ll find a different, less-rich version of pork and buns under dim sum. These Shanghainese-style baos are light and yeasty. Filled with chopped pork and greens, they are steamed then pan-fried, which browns and slightly crisps their bottoms.
Peony Kitchen ★★½
10317 Main St., Bellevue
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday; happy hour (bar only) 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: $$$ (plates $7-$48)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; beer; wine; sake, soju and baijiu
Service: polite and accommodating
Parking: three hours free on level P-1 of The Meyden garage
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
A dim sum combo of steamed shrimp dumplings (with and without chives) are prettily pinched and tinted pale green or dark purple. They look like plump, luminous sea creatures. They taste divine.
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Peony’s pork-filled xiao long bao are very pretty, too. The soup dumplings come in five different shades, each corresponding to ingredients worked into the dough: squid ink (black), ginseng (green), sweet-and-sour (pink), cheese (yellow) and traditional (white). The flavors are subtle. My order was tepid and not very brothy, but I saw much perkier ones at others’ tables. They are very popular.
So, too, is the whole five-spice crispy duck, and with good reason. Deboned and splayed on a tray, with drumsticks and wings marking each corner, the duck is a marvel to behold as well as a joy to eat. Its brittle amber skin shields tender roasted flesh that is almost fully rendered of fat. It crackles like cellophane as you roll it in a thin pancake with crunchy vegetables, herbs and a dab of hoisin. Sugar-sprinkled, bruléed lemon slices make a brilliant foil for the richness.
Presentation is important to Peony’s chef, Danna Hwang, which is why she tries to eyeball every dish before it leaves the kitchen. Hwang is new to the restaurant business. Born in Canton, China, she came here as a 17-year-old and raised two children before starting a catering business. After preparing meals for China’s president, Xi Jinping, and his entourage on their Seattle visit in 2015, she teamed up with Paul Choi to open Peony in The Meyden, a new, residential/retail complex at the corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way.
Choi is an experienced restaurateur who also owns Sushi Maru in Bellevue and Seattle. Hwang and Choi and their spouses are longtime friends. Before opening Peony this spring, they traveled to New York, San Francisco and Asia gathering ideas for the modern Chinese menu they envisioned. Hong Kong’s Mott 32 (which opened a branch in Vancouver, B.C., earlier this year) inspired the Tung Po pork belly, for example.
In a phone interview, Hwang told me the restaurant consumes all her time now. She’s learning as she goes. Since opening in March, they’ve trimmed the menu in order to offer the freshest ingredients — a smart move. It’s still a lengthy list of roughly 30 rice, noodle and main dishes, plus assorted small plates, the same at lunch as at dinner.
Hwang describes her style as “modern Chinese fusion,” a vision she tries to communicate to her cooks. (There are 17 at the moment in her kitchen, which is visible from the dining room through steamy windows.) “If you do it wrong,” she said, “It comes out awful.”
Only one dish came out awful in my several visits. Fishy-smelling mussels marred the delicate cream sauce for an array of seafood and vegetables that nested among crispy Hong Kong noodles. But Peony’s signature chow fun noodles, packed with shrimp, scallops, squid and chicken, were perfectly delightful.
Freshness, beauty, bright flavors and contrasting textures set Hwang’s food apart. Puffed rice topped a stir-fry of leeks, red jalapeño and tender, velveted Angus beef. Cucumber and raw carrot tripled the crunch in a cold jelly fish salad rocked with scallion pesto and chili oil. “Garlic crispy chicken” (Peony’s somewhat tame version of General Tso’s) benefits from a liberal dusting of garlicky toasted breadcrumbs.
There were other happy pairings. A garlic-riddled sauté of lotus root and kale are a dream team. So are cucumbers and black wood-ear mushrooms in a cold, sesame-dressed salad. Corn, carrots, lotus seed and salty-sweet radish pickle stud “forbidden fried rice,” a glorious gathering of grains that includes black and brown rice, plus barley. Leek juice flavored wonderful hand-cut rice noodles, an allium jamboree tossed with scallions and red onion (and chicken if you like).
The food comes fast, delivered by attentive servers whose knowledge of the menu and command of the language varies. Drinks take longer. They tend to be complicated concoctions, small for the price. “Fallen Angels” is frothy and floral with a lemon lift. It’s a fine vehicle for the complexity of Botanist gin, unlike “Spring in a Small Town,” which muffled the same gin with too much blackberry and thyme. My favorite drink, though, was a bright red mocktail made with hibiscus syrup, lemon and ginger ale, adorned with a candied hibiscus flower.
Peony’s visual pleasures extend to the interior, decorated with Chinese pottery, brass and vases of silk peonies. Walls of brick, tile and unfinished wood give the new building a vintage look. They’ve managed to make the 6,500-square-foot space feel intimate by dividing it into smaller, well-defined spaces. Glass-walled rooms are available for private dining. The bar conjures the mood of 1930s-era Shanghai, but in the dining room, where long tables are often filled with packs of hip young people and multigenerational Asian families, it feels like Bellevue circa 2017.