Monday, January 3, 2011

Dim Sum at Red Pearl in Columbia

Roast pork and shu mai
The ingredients for brunch should be good food, a relaxed pace, and just enough chatter in the restaurant to energize the day.

Our new brunch find is Red Pearl in Columbia, where the dim sum feast became the official meal of the HowChow holidays -- Christmas Day, one weeknight, then New Year's Day again.  Steamed dumplings with barbecued pork.  Roasted duck.  Shrimp in rice noodle sheets.  I could grab dishes off each cart that passed by, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Red Pearl opened last year on the Columbia lakefront spot that used to be Jesse Wong's Hong Kong.  It's a modern space where they started with an authentic Sichuan menu that they've augmented since last summer.  The recent innovation was Hong-Kong-style dim sum with dumplings, roast meats and fabulous desserts.  You can order from a menu on weekdays -- even at dinner -- but the real drama is weekend brunch when waitresses push rolling carts.

Sesame balls

Bring a crew.  Most dishes have three or four pieces, so you can share a table of flavors.  For me, Red Pearl meets or exceeds the dim sum at Asian Court in Ellicott City or Oriental East in Silver Spring.  A large selection, and terrific classics like shu mai, sticky rice, steamed BBQ pork dumplings, and fried sesame balls.  The shrimp dumplings were filled with spinach and seafood that tasted fresh and sweet.

If Red Pearl beat out my old spots, it was because of unusual items like shrimp in rice noodles and roast pork with crispy skin -- a great texture considering that many dim sum can be starchy and soft. They even have special carts where a waitress crisped up chicken dumplings so that they hit our table sizzling.  After two full tables, I still haven't tried the soft tofu dessert or the black "sesame rolls" that I saw after gorging last weekend.

Dim sum can also be a parade of meat, so I'd highlight two vegetarian items -- the large plate of Chinese broccoli and the vegetable dumplings.  Those round dumplings have a delicate flavor  Ask the waitresses what they have on their cart.  Often, they'll just show you the best seller even though they have three or more items hidden in metal containers.  Ask for anything that you don't see.  We got the vegetable dumplings because a waitress went and found vegetarian items for us.

At least the last two weekends, it was a Chinese crowd in Red Pearl.   The glass dividers create private areas, but the restaurant chattered with energy.  (And it wasn't distracting because most of the conversation wasn't in a language that I don't understand.)  That suggests they're pleasing people with more dim sum knowledge than I have, although Red Pearl has disappointed some possible customers -- like HoCo Politico who left after waiting almost an hour for a table.  But I'd recommend a return for the dim sum.

(Update:  Check out the comments.  Min offered a new option in Wheaton, and Agauntpanda gave summaries of four local dim sum places.)

One oddity about the dim sum menu during the week.  Dinner prices are higher, even for some dishes like sticky rice where the serving size remains the same.  Maybe that's because a chef has to personally prepare each dish, but I wish Red Pearl would explain because it surprised us when we ate with my parents.  If you're looking for other Chinese food, click here for my 2010 write-up of Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

Red Pearl
10215 Wincopin Circle
Columbia, MD 21044

Near: Red Pearl is on the lake across from the mall in Columbia Town Center.  From Little Patuxent Parkway, you turn into a large parking lot that says "restaurant parking."  Then you walk down to the lakefront.  The view is actually quite nice, and Red Pearl is between Sushi Sono and Clyde's.


Min said...

Nice report on Red Pearl, thanks! We've heard good things about it.

We have found a very nice restaurant in Wheaton that offers dim sum in carts on weekends and by menu on weekdays: Wong Gee. It's operated by the former owners of DC's Eat First. Friends and I consider its dim sum offering surpasses that of Oriental East's. And its regular menu offers very authentic Cantonese dishes. If you go in before 6pm, there's a happy hour-like special that offers 3 dishes plus one soup for under $20.

p.s. Asian Court and Oriental East do offer roast pork with crispy skin, but you'll have to put in the order with the waitperson.

Robin@ Good for the Palate said...

So where is the best dim sum in the DC/Columbia/Baltimore area?

agauntpanda said...

Here are my dim sum quick briefs:

1. Red Pearl - superbly prepared, large variety, with lots of interesting stuff on plates as well as carts. Excellent spicy dishes -- clams with black bean sauce are tops, great variety in dumplings (ground duck dumplings are unreal). Creative desserts (fried honey crisps!). Very friendly staff.

2. Oriental East - smaller variety, less adventurous, somewhat blander offerings, but still very high quality on what they do offer and ridiculously low priced. There are some dishes they do better than anyone else, e.g. sticky rice with sausage, taro dumplings, and fried taro & shrimp cakes. Wait staff can be overworked and staff is very businesslike. This is my go-to place for dim sum first-timers, although Red Pearl is much more convenient.

3. Hollywood East - Excellent variety, less spicy stuff and dessert than Red Pearl, also has a very friendly staff. Dumplings are big, meaty and fresh, lots of taste and richness. Can sometimes be a little heavy.

4. Asian Court - A mixed bag in my experience, except the noodle dishes which are quite good. Steamed items taste waterlogged; but they have some very original dishes that it's hard to find elsewhere.

HowICook said...

Don't forget the tea. Early in my dim sum training, I got scolded by my dim sum hosts for not ordering hot tea. Supposedly, it held with digestion. Red pearl offers 3 different hot teas, Chrysanthemum, jasmine, and black tea. I prefer the jasmine for it's wonderful fragrance but some other members of my family prefer the chrysanthemum tea. It's made from dried flowers with an definite herbal edge. Red pearl charges for tea but hot water refills are free.

Lisa said...

Today's Kojo Nnamdi Show is about local Chinese restaurants. Todd Kliman, the food editor at Washingtonian Magazine, is raving about going off-menu at Red Pearl. I haven't been yet, but I always get excited when HoCo gets positive DC-based coverage.

Kristi said...

We ate dim sum at Red Pearl on Sunday and I don't know if they were off that day, or because it was Sunday, but it was bland and disappointing. We got the pork dumplings that didn't hold their shape and were mushy, the pork shumai and shrimp hak gao were large, but bland. We actually stopped ordering off the carts because we were so disappointed.

My family has dim sum at least twice a month and we were so excited when we heard Red Pearl was opening in Columbia. I am hoping that it was just a fluke since all the reviews have been so positive, and I will try them again eventually. Unfortunately, I still have yet to find a dim sum place in Howard County that rivals those of Montgomery County.

My go to for dim sum is still New Fortune in Gaithersburg. Oriental East is a close second.

Annie T. said...

Thanks for posting this review! I recently moved to Columbia from St. Louis, Missouri, where you can find dim sum everywhere. =) So, I've been craving it here. I'll definitely check it out. One question, do you know of any Thai grocery stores in the area? I've been to Lotte and H Mart, but they don't carry a lot of Thai stuff that I'm used to.

HowChow said...

@Annie -- Glad that you liked it. There isn't a Thai grocery between DC and Baltimore as far as I know. (And I'd love to be wrong.) I suggest a weekend drive to Duangrat's Grocery in Falls Church. You could do some other food shopping or just grab lunch in Northern Virginia and shop for Thai groceries.

Marty Katz said...

Wong Gee is so nice, I did a mini-video: