938 Maple Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: The Eastern Pearl
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"It's obvious that The Eastern Pearl will if nothing else enjoy a strong start from the thousands of suburbanites who have tired of eating their Chinese food from cartons."
"Cautious optimism" is the trite, overused weasel of a phrase that enables critics to obliquely suggest that they're concerned about something they've tested but hopeful that it will improve. We've read the words a million times over the years, and strongly prefer neither to use nor see them again. But if we were to express that sentiment, the subject would certainly be Williamsville's brand new Chinese restaurant, The Eastern Pearl. From a foodie's standpoint, we'd argue that there isn't a single thing that Western New York has needed more than a truly great gourmet Chinese restaurant, precisely what The Eastern Pearl claims to be. That's why this locally-owned replacement for the burnt-down Chang's Garden has arrived bearing all the expectations of a community that has spent almost two years crossing an international border or huddling in take-out places to try and sate its Chinese needs. The Eastern Pearl probably could never live up to our collective hopes, but we find ourselves wishing that it will. And as we write these words today, it is so new that no fair judgments could be made as to its destiny. Thus, we're not going to formally review or rate it yet, but we are going to tell you what it was like on opening night.
The Eastern Pearl officially opened for business today after a reconstruction project that began late in 2008 and was originally scheduled to be finished in the spring. What remains of the former Chang's Garden are the frame of a building, its window panes, and doors, now augmented by a more impressive street-facing entryway and an almost completely redesigned dining room. There are still booths against two of the walls, but the dining area has been gutted to accommodate a collection of tables, and its rear left corner given a small, private dining room with its own door. Centered in the back is a tiled, wall-mounted water fountain, and off to the right are fancy restrooms that rival the area's nicest in finish. In fact, the whole place looks good enough to rival many of the area's nicest restaurants. Save for some internally illuminated columns, stained or frosted glass windows, and metallic door handles, most everything inside has the gentle matte luster of dark, just-finished wood, all receiving the first of what will be many scratches - unless they get some much-needed protection, soon - and the menus felt as if they had never been opened or touched before.
Those menus, incidentally, are somewhat unlike the ones you'll find at any other local Chinese restaurant. Focused on Cantonese cuisine, their first page of $4-$8 appetizers initially looks a little like a miniature dim sum menu, with staples such as juicy Shanghai pork dumplings, crystalline shrimp dumplings, and peppered calamari sharing the stage with more Westerner-friendly fare such as egg rolls, crab wontons, and lettuce wraps. A second page offers Cantonese-style "Cold Platter" options such as chicken feet, jelly fish salad, and smoked pork, with enticing pricing: one choice for $6, and two, three, or four choices for $3 more a piece. Many other menu items have a Cantonese flare, including a seafood-heavy menu with noodle-based birds' nests, two separate frog's legs dishes, and multiple entrees with conch; most items are affordable, with the $34 Peking Duck as the atypical priciest pick apart from the seasonally priced lobster dishes. There's a lot of new territory for virtually any type of diner to explore, plus a full slate of familiar options - standard wonton and egg drop soups, kung pao and egg foo young, beef with broccoli, and of course, lo mein and fried rice. If you want to treat The Eastern Pearl like any other Chinese take-out, the obvious choices are all there - at lunchtime, ranging from $5.50 to $6.50, dinnertime $9 and up - but it's the not-so-obvious stuff that really interested us here.
Service is going to be a question mark at The Eastern Pearl for at least a month, based on what we saw tonight. The servers and kitchen are only at the very start of developing what will most likely be a smooth groove; our server suggested that he'd only arrived in town two days earlier and was still learning who everyone was, and the staff was a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese, all smiles and courtesy, though clearly working through the initial issues of a launch with plenty of hungry people in attendance. One of those issues was the delivery of food: for a change, the kitchen was so fast on its feet that our entire meal arrived both quickly, and nearly all at once, appetizers and soup following entrees with such pace that our table had no room for all the plates. Every table gets a small dish of Spanish-style peanuts and another small dish of sweet pickled radishes to munch on, a nice touch and a departure from the days of Chang's greasy but delicious preliminary noodles.
Our first order was substantial, beginning with a gentle, warm Scallion Pancake ($4), roughly the same thickness as the more familiar pancake but large enough to occupy the entirety of a medium-sized plate, each triangular piece dark brown and bitter with fresh chopped scallions. Slightly greasy, as is the norm, the Pancake otherwise won praise from everyone at our table. An appetizer plate of Shrimp Dumplings ($5) arrived much like versions we've had in many dim sum restaurants, with translucent white wrappers surrounding bright pink shrimp, all steamed from what tasted to be a freezer package rather than handmade stock. The plate was attractive and reasonably proportioned, but not especially fresh; our hope is that this changes when the kitchen's inventory is being more frequently replenished.
Two other appetizer picks were mixed. A diamond-shaped bowl of Hot and Sour Soup ($3.50) was purely vegetarian, with a rich, seemingly fresh broth and plenty of little pieces of tofu, bamboo shoot, and mushrooms, but something in the bowl set off our seafood-allergic group member's tongue alarm, so she was forced to stop after only one spoonful. The soup became someone else's treat, instead. Another pick, a Cold Platter ($9) with our choice of Braised Beef and Chicken Sesame Salad, garnered only light praise. One plate's small, thin slices of cooked but chilled beef were only lightly flavored and mildly appetizing, while the second plate's salad was a really plain plate with lots of tossed lettuce and cucumber pieces, topped with an almost garnish-sized cold, breaded, and sliced chicken filet; it had sesame flavor, but little depth, and the meat didn't seem to match the greens underneath.
Our entrees were more interesting. Both the Seafood Bird's Nest ($19) and the General Tso's Chicken ($12) were middle-of-pack in quality, though the expensive Nest made for the far more interesting delivery. Like virtually all such Nest dishes served in the United States, it arrived as an edible bowl made from fried noodles, here of the thinner, crispier sort rather than the super-thick, yellow flour noodle bowls served by most places; inside were pieces of shrimp, beautifully cut squid, nice scallops, and crab meat, plus vegetables. As is often the case with such bowls, the shell was on the very boring side in flavor, and though the nest came with just enough sauce to coat its contents, there was too little to soak through the shell and render it worth eating. The flavor of the seafood was bona-fide good, but it could have used both a little more punch and warmth.
We pick the General Tso's Chicken when we're testing Chinese restaurants not because it's the most authentic or wonderful dish, but because everyone knows it and most people enjoy it. Here, the pieces were medium-sized, decently proportioned in batter and chicken breast meat, then coated in a sauce that wasn't missing sweetness, citric tanginess, or spice, but also wasn't particularly strong in any of those categories, or special overall. Steamed broccoli surrounded the pile of meat, though there were no chili peppers to be found on the plate, a sign of its mildness. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as we've had at other local restaurants, and certainly not as memorably powerful as the old Chang's version. Or the prior Sun Garden's. The list could go on.
Last up was the biggie, the Peking Duck ($34), a traditional dish that we've sampled in venues ranging from formal seating in Beijing itself to quick-turn restaurants in California and Toronto. Due to the challenges involved in preparing this dish, which is supposed to see a specially bred duck boiled, glazed with syrup, and hung for 24 hours before roasting in an oven - facts that make many restaurants, including Eastern Pearl, request 24 hours' advance placement of an order - it would be patently unfair to rate a restaurant's Peking Duck on its first night, even when the server nonchalantly offers it to you on 25 minutes' notice. That's what happened here, and we'd be surprised if 25 minutes passed from time of order to actual delivery.
A nearly full duck, head inclusive, was delivered on an oversized plate that had been circled with tomato slices; two separate plates held a collection of Chinese soft buns called Mantou rather than the common but less impressive moo shu pancakes, as well as sliced scallions, cucumbers, and Hoisin sauce that our overflowing table demanded be combined together immediately. Long story short, the duck is generally prized for its sweet, crispy skin, and soft, tender meat, so much so that all the extra stuff is merely optional. Here, the extras were mandatory; the duck meat was somewhat dry, fused to the crispy skin, and helped a lot by the hoisin sauce and fluffy, slightly sweet buns. Given the price, it's hard to write off an unimpressive Peking Duck, but this was the rare case where we'd simply blame ourselves for having accepted the opportunity to order it under less than optimal conditions. Hopefully, it'll be better next time.
There's that word "hope" again - a reflection of our sincere desire that The Eastern Pearl's food and service grow into its attractive new trappings, and lives up to its web site's promise of truly gourmet Chinese food. As both long-time fans of this cuisine and critics familiar with its many variations and levels of quality, we feel duty-bound not to slather the place with undue praise nor damn it before it has had time to settle in; however, we feel strongly that Buffalo has an unusual stake in seeing it be legitimately good, and then succeed. If it doesn't, the closest this area will come to a high-class - if inauthentic - Chinese dining experience may be P.F. Chang's, scheduled to open at the Galleria in October. For the moment, it's obvious that The Eastern Pearl will if nothing else enjoy a strong start from the thousands of suburbanites who have tired of eating their Chinese food from cartons; we'll update this article soon with details on whether it has developed the necessary quality to keep patrons coming back for second and third visits.
Updated October 9, 2009: There is an important difference between wanting a restaurant to be great and actually discovering that it is great; covered in a previous article, the Cantonese-focused Chinese restaurant Eastern Pearl exemplifies this difference. We have at this point visited four or more times since it opened, every time hoping for a meal that was memorable enough to call great. That hasn't happened. To the contrary, literally every dinner we've had at the place has been forgettable except for the ambience, which is unquestionably several notches above any other Chinese place in Buffalo or its suburbs. This is a place to have a nice meal, but not a place to expect anything earth-shattering; we've had better Chinese food at less impressively decorated local places.
We could go into great detail regarding our subsequent meals, but there really isn't much more that needs to be said other than that they were fine. Seafood is Eastern Pearl's strong point - a Seafood Delight ($15), for instance, was a big plate of prawns, scallops, squid, seemingly artificial crab and vegetables in a conventional white sauce, and a bowl of Seafood Noodles Soup ($8) was a sub-entree-sized portion of thin egg noodles topped with the same seafood items, scallions, and a chicken broth. All of the fresh seafood dishes we've tried here have been acceptable in flavor, simple rather than dressed up in any way, but nothing has stood out on preparation or taste; it was just there. Mongolian Beef ($12), Spicy Shredded Beef ($11), and other entrees were competent renditions, similarly not much better than one would find at a local take-out. That having been said, the prices are reasonable enough given the surroundings that we'd cut Eastern Pearl some slack; in many cases, you'll find that you'd pay as much to eat the same dishes in much dumpier settings.
Appetizers have been a fairly consistent Eastern Pearl weakness. The various Egg Rolls ($4 for two), Dumplings ($5 each), and standard soups ($3-$5 per bowl) range from poor to okay, hitting buffet quality at times and cresting only with the soups; Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($7) are by contrast generously proportioned and fresh enough, though in no way memorable in flavor - a brown soy marinate makes the warm ground chicken filling good enough to stand apart from the cold lettuce leaves you stuff yourself. Sadly, Small Juicy Buns Shanghai Style ($5), or soft-skinned dumplings with pork and soup inside, have on two occasions been mediocre due either to inexpert storage, preparation, or sourcing; we've had much better versions at home after bringing home freezer bags from Ni Hoowa. We've sampled many other dishes, of course, but our comments are mostly the same; service has varied only a little from visit to visit, always friendly and generally attentive, but not always on the ball. Apart from the front counter staff, which on some days actually includes the former proprietor of the sadly shuttered Rita's Crystal Palace, more polish continues to be needed.
As we've said before, Western New York needs a truly great Chinese restaurant, and to our chagrin, Eastern Pearl isn't it... yet. While it fills the class gap left when Chang's Garden burned down, and provides a far nicer venue for Chinese dining than any other place in the suburbs, the food quality is only enough to merit a "good" rating from us. We'll return, but with less enthusiasm than we'd hoped; hopefully Eastern Pearl will find some way to really stand out in the months and years to come.