To say that the new Meizhou Dongpo in Irvine is unlike any other Chinese restaurant in town would be an understatement. The outside resembles something out of a Zhang Yimou wuxia film set in ancient imperial China. The building, which was once a Marie Callender's, has been transformed into the imposing country fortress of a nobleman, with windows shielded by dark slats of wood and roof tiles that could deflect a rain of arrows.
Walk inside—past the hermetically sealed kitchen within which uniformed chefs carve mahogany-skinned ducks into razor-thin slices with the precision of surgeons—and the room opens up into an opulent den, in which ornate lanterns dangle, rows of tassels divide the room and blue mood lighting emanates from hidden LEDs built into the ceiling. If the Maseratis parked outside aren't the first clue that dinner here can easily tick into the triple digits, the menu should be. It's as heavy as a yearbook, with glossy pictures for every dish and wordy descriptions that include, in some cases, which famous person ate it.
The restaurant's featured soup is the minced chicken pudding. It's the very same soup, the menu points out, that President Barack Obama sipped as the guest of honor at a state banquet while in Beijing. Of course, I ordered it. The single-serving cup, which costs $9, contained broth and one snow pea shoot laid atop a white cloud of foam made from egg and chicken. This foam—whose closest cousin can be found in a Jewish matzo ball—instantly disintegrated in my mouth as though poultry-flavored cotton candy. It was wondrously light, unlike anything I've ever had.
Other dishes also come in small serving bowls, such as the $6 dan-dan noodles, the classic Sichuan street dish swimming in a lip-numbing red-chile oil. Also intended for one person: the $9-a-pop block of quivering Dongpo pork belly braised in soy and ginger sauce. I found it too decadent not to share and consume with lots of rice, which, by the way, costs another $1.50 per bowl. The best (and also least expensive) dish was the steamed pork buns that come two per $5 order—fluffy pillows encasing loose pieces of hog and preserved vegetables that reminded me again how good a pork bun could be when made fresh and served hot.
However, as the evening wore on, I discovered my enjoyment of each dish became inversely proportional to the price I paid for them. The $16 kung pao chicken—something my Taiwanese dining companion loved when he had it in Meizhou Dongpo's Wuhan branch—started well. The chicken was velvety, its sauce humming with an addictive vinegary tang. But as the dish cooled, it turned so gloppy that the cornstarch-ladened glaze finally congealed into something resembling glue. Then there were the $17 stir-fried bamboo shoots with whole roasted garlic cloves and cucumber that, upon my first bite, I thought were fresh and crisp. But the more I ate, the more I realized half the pieces were from the fibrous end of the plant.
That dish was still better than the $10 black fungus cold plate, which was composed mostly of raw onions. On closer inspection of the shumai—which I initially thought were generously filled with shrimp and pork despite its soggy skin—I realized the liquid pooled inside wasn't the broth that I'd expect to spurt out of a Din Tai Fung dumpling, but rather plain old grease.
It would take two more visits for me to successfully place an order for Meizhou Dongpo's much-hyped roasted duck. That first night, the sharply suited host announced to the waiting crowd at about 7:30 p.m. that the kitchen had run out. But after finally scoring the duck on my third visit, I'm unconvinced it was worth the investment. At $70 for a whole bird, it costs nearly twice as much as Capital Seafood's version across town. In addition to that, it takes another 50 minutes for it to be prepared.
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What I paid and waited for, I think, was the entire pomp and circumstance of the duck. Heralding its arrival, the bowls of sauce, dipping sugar, and perfectly slivered scallions and cucumbers were placed in a perfect line on my table. And when it finally came, I saw that the sliced duck petals were intricately arranged in an alternating fish-scale pattern on a special duck-shaped plate. But to me, aside from the pretty presentation and the crepe-like pancakes, it tasted like any other Peking duck a fraction of its cost.
I wonder if its exorbitance is nothing if not fodder for Meizhou Dongpo's core audience, mainland Chinese nouveau riche who buy up Irvine's newest real estate, cash in hand, and whose kids wear more bling than Jay Z. For them, I think Meizhou Dongpo might as well be McDonald's and that duck an Extra Value Meal.
Meizhou Dongpo, 15363 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 433-5686. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $50-$100, food only.