The bowls and plates scattered around our table at Hong Kong Palace radiate the unmistakable heat and pungent aromas of Szechwan province, which is stimuli enough to trigger an almost Pavlovian response from one of my dining companions.
After sampling the spicy won tons and spicy dry beef, he pronounces the dishes decent enough, if lacking in complexity, depth of flavor, and a certain essence of Peter Chang. My friend’s meaning is clear: Hong Kong Palace’s chef, Liu Chaosheng, couldn’t carry the kitchen clogs of Dear One Chang, a Szechwan cult figure if ever there was one.
OK, I’m exaggerating his opinions slightly, but to many savvy palates in the D.C. area, Chang represents the Valhalla of Szechwan cuisine. The chef’s fans have shadowed him through all his bizarre, quixotic career moves, including all-too-brief stints at China Star in Fairfax, Tempt Asian Cafe in Alexandria, and Szechuan Boy in Fairfax. But one day last year, Chang just up and vanished, address unknown, only to mysteriously turn up weeks later at a strip-mall restaurant outside Atlanta. Until he disappeared again, this time without a trace.
But no matter what sphere Chang currently occupies, his ghost continues to hang over our local Szechwan scene. Now, I never had the opportunity to sample Chang’s food before he pulled his David Copperfield routine, so I have no point of reference on his talent. Yet I know this about comparisons to master chefs: They’re rarely fair to the “challenger.”
So when my dining companion invokes Chang to the detriment of Liu, a professional chef who graduated from a Chengdu cooking school in 1987, I have a visceral urge to rush to Liu’s defense. “That’s like comparing everyone to Michel Richard,” I argue. My tablemate graciously concedes the point.
Still, I have a feeling Chang will haunt Szechwan chefs in this town for a long time—or, more precisely, haunt those who have sampled Chang’s cooking and will forever find other chefs wanting. I had already heard such dismissals after my review of Great Wall Szechuan House on 14th Street NW last year: Chef Chen Yuan was good, some noted, but he’s no Peter Chang. I began to hate a chef whose food I had never tasted.
Well, I’m determined to bust Chang’s ghost once and for all. Hong Kong Palace deserves to be judged on its own merits, without, to borrow from the Black Crowes, playing second fiddle to a dead man. Liu has logged too many hours behind too many woks to suffer such a fate. Before opening Hong Kong with his wife, Melanie Qing, who serves as GM here, Liu sweated in the kitchens at Bamboo Buffet in Falls Church and Charlie Chiang’s in Alexandria. This is his first chance to showcase his Szechwan skills on a full-time basis.
I first found out about Hong Kong Palace through author Sam Fromartz, who heard about it from his friend, an associate professor of Chinese history, who heard about it from a colleague who teaches Chinese, who heard a rumor about the restaurant. The grapevine is still the main form of advertising for places like Hong Kong Palace; it just takes place via e-mail nowadays. Does anyone really believe this kind of electronic buzz occurs among Chinese transplants and Sinophiles without merit?
Whether Liu is the next Chang, I cannot say. But I can confirm that the chef knows Szechwan cooking, which may be the most complex and codified cuisine on the face of the Earth. As cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop notes, Szechwan cuisine features 23 “official” flavor combinations, 33 different terms for cutting and chopping, and 56 specific cooking methods. I have no idea whether Liu uses all of these at Hong Kong Palace, but over the course of three visits, I saw and savored a number of them.
A central principle to all Chinese cooking is the concept of xian, which boils down to, in Dunlop’s words, “the most exalted flavors of nature…the essence of flavor itself.” This essence stuff can get problematic with Szechwan cooking, with its emphasis on bold flavors and chili oils, but Liu pulls off a seeming slight of hand with a pair of cumin-laced dishes, one beef and the other lamb. Despite heavy dustings of the sharp, aromatic spice, the stir-fried slices retain their essential meatiness. In fact, the cumin lamb reminded me and my tablemates so much of the Middle East that we started to wonder if the Szechwan province once had a trade route through the Ottoman Empire.
Despite Szechwan chefs’ love for all things pork, particularly the fatty underside of swine, I found myself repeatedly preferring Liu’s treatment of other species. Aside from the cumin dishes, I fell for Liu’s tea-smoked duck, a simple plate of fatty, crunchy, jasmine-scented pieces of bird that give little indication of the painstaking techniques that go into their preparation, including a quick, last-minute dip in the deep-fryer. I also developed a hankering for the aforementioned spicy Szechwan dry beef, a pile of uniform strips of semi-chewy, semi-moist beef sprinkled with sesame seeds and infused with a chili oil that really sneaks up on you.
The best pig dish I sampled was one our server told us was none-too-popular with Americans: braised intestine noodle soup, a medium-sized bowl of a rich, aromatic broth swimming with noodles, spinach, and thin pieces of surprisingly soft and creamy offal. The soup perfectly embodies two hallmarks of Chinese cooking: a chef’s ability to mask unpleasant odors as well as his skill at sussing out an ingredient’s optimal mouthfeel, the latter concept known as kou gan, which focuses not just on texture but also on pure sensual satisfaction. I also savored Liu’s ma po tofu, silken cubes of Chinese bean curd that provide a pleasing counterpoint to the fiery chili sauce and numbing Szechwan peppercorns.
Liu whiffed only once or twice during my visits. A bitter melon dish, a plate of dry-fried slices that lived up to its name, could have used more of the chef’s masking skills. I also wish he would have eased up on the soy sauce in the Old Buddhist braised pork and let the belly meat handle the salt chores.
The only other oddity about Hong Kong Palace, of course, is its name, with its unspoken promise of Cantonese cuisine. There’s even a gigantic, illuminated Blade Runner-like image of the financial center on the back wall of the spare dining room. Just ignore it all. The name and the photo are carry-overs from the previous occupants. They are also metaphors: If you want to enjoy Hong Kong Palace, you should let go of what came before.
Hong Kong Palace,6387 E. Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, (703)532-0940