First Impression: Richard Chen Asian Cuisine

When I go to other cities, especially cities that have large Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or other East Asian communities, I tend to shit on the so-called “Pan Asian” style restaurants. My opinion of the iconic Vietnamese place called The Slanted Door in San Francisco is typical. I couldn’t see why I just spent all that money to get typical Vietnamese takeout food on fancy plates with a bar in the background (we went to the original, not the new one).

Now that the Richard Chen restaurant has opened in East Liberty in Pittsburgh, I think I understand why people would be excited about a place like that. This is the best new Asian restaurant to open in the city since Rose Tea Cafe started serving food. But, it is a lot of money and very fancy plates.

Here is the thing. This place is a Chinese Restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves a credible Pot Sticker. I’ve never had a credible pot sticker outside of Toronto or SF. It’s like I’ve been shuttled into an alternate dimension where Pittsburgh has real Chinese Food. I’ve been waiting for this so long that I’m willing to cut a place that can do it a lot of slack.

Not that Richard Chen needs it. Here are some of the dishes we got:

1. Braised Pork Belly with steamed buns. Perfect little plain steamed buns. Soft tender pork belly with just enough of the rich fat and a rich, yet light, brown sauce with a touch of anise.

2. Tuna Sashimi with Marinated Jellyfish and Ponzu Sauce. This was the best appetizer of the bunch.

3. The pot stickers. An almost perfect filling (which I can’t really do yet). The skins were slightly chewy and might have been wonton skins, but I’d like to think not.

4. Bean Curd Sheet stuffed with mushrooms. Very good, but again the fried skins were slightly chewy.

5. Spicy Beef Salad. This was lettuce, grilled flank steak (I think), a sweet vinegar dressing and watermelon cubes hiding chili peppers to go with the dressing. Not overdressed and it had the perfect balance of sweet and sour and spicy.

For one entree we got Chili Prawns with Broccoli Rabe. The prawns were fresh and snappy and perfectly cooked. The sauce and the broccoli rabe were a great variation on the standard Chinese greens or broccoli. We also got Baby Bok Choy with Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots. Hey! The bamboo shoots were great! I hate bamboo shoots.

The entrees both came with sauces that were too salty. This threw off the balance of things and was a bit confusing considering how well executed the appetizers were. This is the only comment I have about the place that is almost a complaint.

There were a few other off notes as well, but nothing major. I find the Western service style a little disorienting, but that’s OK. There are only three kinds of rice on the menu: Jasmine, Brown Rice, and some sort of Red Rice. None of these are right. But the Jasmine rice is at least well cooked. The menu is a strange mix. On the one hand there are ethereal dumplings, creative variations on standards and a few really new things. On the other hand are some dishes that are almost standard “American Chinese takeout”, although to be fair I have to reserve judgement until I try them.

At this point, none of these things are unforgivable because the existence of this place in Pittsburgh is so astounding. I guess this is how the people felt when the Slanted Door opened. I guess I’m getting soft.

Other things on the menu we could not order, but which looked good: Crystal Prawn dumplings, Seafood Mousse Dumplings with Pea Leaves, Wok Fried Cod in a clay pot, Lobster in “XO” Sauce, Beef Tenderloin with Vegetables, Five Spiced Duck. That’s all I can remember.

Funniest menu item: Free Range Kung Pao Chicken. It looked good.

Funniest service moment: In the middle of the dining room is this striking white table with a vase and a large orchid. It’s bright and shiny and hides service items like forks and knives and such. At one point one of the servers put a stack of menus on this table. The manager instantly appeared and quietly told the server to never do that again, ever.

I am optimistic about this place. It is more expensive than people are used to for “Chinese Food”. You will pay as much here as any of the fancier places in Pittbsurgh: Mio, Vivo, Eleven, Dish, and so on. But they are doing a lot more than just Chinese Food. I realize that it might be a stretch to expect people to appreciate that, but I’m hopeful.

I plan to go and run the whole menu. I hope you go too, and pay the prices, and appreciate what they are doing, because it’s really good.