Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grace Garden: Chinese Cuisine Prepared by a Master Chef

You may have noticed that we take birthdays pretty seriously around Casa de Trix. Remember how I recreated a Viennese heuriger feast for Poppa Trix, complete with  gnocchi baked in pumpkin cream and liptauer cheese? And made him a boatload of red velvet cupcakes?  Well, that was just on his actual birthday. The night before, for a surprise, I took him to Grace Garden, a place we had both been wanting to try for some time..

Going into it, I knew this would not be a typical romantic birthday meal.  It's located in a run down strip of storefronts in a pretty rough D.C. suburb. (In fact, we later found out that the same night we were there,  a pizza delivery driver was shot nearby - a fairly common occurrence. Gulp.) At first glance, Grace Garden looks like just another crappy Americanized Chinese takeout. But have a closer look, and you'll notice something a little different: Hanging on the walls of this Zagat-rated hole-in-the-wall are well-deserved awards, newspaper and magazine articles, and glowing reviews. And yet hardly anyone around here seems to know about the place. But now you will - and if you are ever in the area, you must, must, must check this place out.

But whatever you do, don't order from the Americanized menu - ask for the authentic one. Why anyone would order beef with broccoli or kung pao chicken - as I actually saw patrons do - when Chef Li is cooking up culinary works of art is beyond me.  If you go, you should plan ahead: Some of the dishes must be ordered anywhere from one to three days in advance. One such dish is the Phoenix Purse Soup:

Going into it, I thought  that the purses - delicate egg white crepes folded around seasoned meat - were the reason to order ahead. But it's actually the broth. Chef Li spends three hours on the broth just for one order, and you can definitely tell. I have never in my life  tasted soup that progressed through as many layers of flavor as a fine wine - here, the fragrant broth goes from salty to peppery to slightly tangy to earthy. Poppa said it immediately took him back to flavors and smells he experienced in Hong Kong on a trip 15 years ago. At the end of the evening, when we were spooning the leftover broth into a takeout container, Chef Li - who had come out to see how we liked our food -  nodded approvingly and said, "Don't leave any. Each drop is gold."

He was not wrong:

Three days before our visit, I ordered the tea smoked duck:
What can I say that the photo does not tell you? The fat was like melting butter, and the skin was perfectly crispy. Calling a dish like this "succulent" may be a cliche - but there you have it. The flavor reminded me of the spices in the Chinese tea eggs I made last year, from a Steamy Kitchen recipe. We had many leftovers from this dish!

But I didn't want to order all of the dishes ahead  - I wanted Poppa Trix to get to choose some things he wanted.

We had the crispy pork belly:
I could not stop chowing down on this. It was subtly spicy, with the most incredible smoky sauce - note that the meat and vegetables are not drowning in sauce as is so often the case at Chinese restaurants around here.  

And, to round out our feast, we had the pocket tofu with shrimp mousse:
If you can imagine eating a fluffy pillow that's been swimming in an umami-rich mushroom broth, you get the idea. Poppa did a great job cleaning his plate (what a good boy!)  ... 
... But we still took a lot of food home.  Rough neighborhood notwithstanding, we cannot wait to go back. There  are so many things to try - the fish noodles, Szechuan fish,  steamed empress chicken ... I am drooling.

And now, prepare to be shocked. Are you sitting down? The next day - Poppa Trix's actual birthday - just so happened to be the last day of our favorite farmer's market for the season. That meant it was the last day to have a sizzling hot fried fish sandwich topped with cole slaw - also known as the "Best Fish on Planet Earth" -  from Ollie the awesome fish guy, who I wrote about it the Urbanite ("Trout to Shout About"). So ... you guessed it: Poppa Trix had a fish sandwich, with hot sauce of course, for breakfast:
It was freezing cold out that day, but no obstacle is too great when Poppa wants a sandwich. I may have had a bite ... or two.  We miss you Ollie - see you in April!
Poppa Trix with Ollie the amazing fish guy





33 comments:

  1. Happy birthday, Poppa! Yeah, the food looks like the real deal. Who cares about ambiance when you have good food, eh?! ;)

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  2. LOVE Grace Garden! Looks like you had an amazing meal. The fish noodles are to die for!

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  3. Nice! He's gonna have a tough time living up to that celebration for your b-day! Theresa

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  4. My family used to go for feasts at the "Green Door" in Vancouver's chinatown --- 2 blocks away from Main & Hastings (notorious for being the poorest postal code in Canada).

    You entered through the back lane, walked through the storage area and sat at green picnic tables covered in newspaper. Nothing has ever come close (for atmosphere or food)

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  5. Happy Birthday to Poppa! That restaurant looks amazing. The duck looks just incredible!

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  6. What a great spread for a birthday! Looks amazing hope hubby has a great and best year ahead!

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  7. So envious of this meal! Everything looks better than the last dish!

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  8. Great meal, homegirl. Making my belly growl!!

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  9. you guys are just too cool, and these small places in dodgy areas are often the best he he

    thanks for the congrats bug hugs Rebecca

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  10. poppa is one lucky fellow - loved reading of the celebration and of the foods... and of your tantalizing choice of words that sends one to the edge and I can say, if I lived anywhere near, I would be there tomorrow... great job

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  11. This place is across the street from Ft Meade, where I work, and I live 5 miles away.
    This bit, "It's located in a run down strip of storefronts in a pretty rough D.C. suburb. (In fact, we later found out that the same night we were there, a pizza delivery driver was shot nearby - a fairly common occurrence...)" is misleading, and insulting to those of us who live and work nearby.
    First, "The Strip," as it is known, is a remnant of bygone days when soldiers at the Fort could only get to places within walking distance. The buildings have seen better days but there is nothing "rough" about it. It is Anne Arundel County, *not* a D.C. suburb.
    SECOND, a pizza delivery driver being shot nearby is most definitely NOT A COMMON OCCURRENCE! I don't know where you got this information.
    We've been meaning to try this place for a long time-- last winter they had to close temporarily because the snow collapsed part of their roof and I never did hear a reopening announcement.

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  12. Anonymous: Here are five violent crimes - NOT including the delivery driver shooting - that took place within a 6 month period. That's enough for me to consider violent crime in the area a common occurrence: http://odenton.patch.com/articles/five-north-odenton-crimes

    If you aren't committing the crimes, then you shouldn't be offended - I say this as someone who also lives in a violent neighborhood.


    I see that you are preoccupied with the same irrelevant points that some of the Baltimore Sun commenters seem focused up. But really - who cares if it is a D.C. or a Baltimore suburb? Quibbling over such trivialities is beside the point. The point is the food - which, unfortunately, it seems you have never tasted.

    Oh well, Anonymous - if you had seen fit to leave your contact info, I could have given you some great recommendations.

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  13. What lovely Chinese food! you indulge poppa trix!

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  14. it matters whether its a baltimore or DC suburb because some of us live in Baltimore suburbs and want to know how far away it is. also calling it a DC suburb is just inaccurate...oh well i've already been a couple times, one of my chinese friends told me that its her family's fave chinese restaurant in bmore and it is AMAZING! my favorite is the crispy eggplant

    and btw i am not the same "anonymous"

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  15. The food at this restaurant looks amazing. I was in DC and Baltimore last May but didn't come across this restaurant or even one serving Chinese food that looked as good as these. Maybe I was looking in the wrong suburb? ;-)

    No wonder Poppa Trix looks happy and can't stop grinning. He's one pampered dude being married to you, Momma!

    x
    Not Anonymous

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  16. Great pictures!!!!!!!!!! And lovely description of the food at Grace Garden (I am sure they are very pleased!)

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  17. @Foodiva: Ha! Maybe you were indeed looking in the wrong suburbs ; )
    @Anonymous # 2: Ah, I see the problem - however, I did include a link to Grace Garden and so I think the Google Maps would be a much more accurate way than my blog to determine the exact distance of the restaurant from your home. Hope that helps!

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  18. aww, you two are so cute! i love the way you celebrate birthdays! wow, that Phoenix Purse Soup looks enchanting. i *must* have some one day! and i have never seen such a generous portion of duck fat served before. duck fat makes everything better. thanks for sharing the birthday dinner - it looks incredible!

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  19. Happy Birthday to Poppa! What a grand way to celebrate... and what a meal... I could taste it throughout your description and photos... thank you for sharing those moments... and, thanks for stopping by and your wonderful comment on my vlog... it's a crazy world out there for old ladies!

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  20. Anonymous #1,here.
    Sorry I didn't leave contact info but I don't have any of the accounts they'll let you comment as and I honestly do not feel like making another account somewhere.
    I didn't see the Sun comments you refer to (well I have now cause you mentioned it);
    I was linked to this blog by an out-of-state friend's post on another site.
    Anonymous #2's comment "it matters whether its a Baltimore or DC suburb because some of us live in Baltimore suburbs and want to know how far away it is. also calling it a DC suburb is just inaccurate..." is spot-on.
    Although I really appreciate your stunning photos and terrific review (def going there now, sooner rather than later!!), I am surprised at the lack the precision and detail in not even mentioning the name of the town in which it is located; this information seems like it would be a crucial part of a complete story.

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  21. @Anonymous #1: I link to the restaurant's Web site which contains complete address information, making it incredibly easy for anyone to locate, regardless of which city claims it as a suburb.

    Also, as I mentioned on the Sun comments, 99% of my audience is not from the Baltimore area. D.C. is much more recognizable to my many international readers. No one outside of this area would recognize the name of the town. Ultimately, as this is a blog and I'm not getting paid to write any of this, what constitutes a "complete story" is entirely up to me.

    I am, however, very glad to hear that you enjoyed that actual purpose of this post - the food and the photos. Thanks for stopping by!

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  22. It's been so long since I've been to a Chinese restaurant. I made the horrible mistake a few years ago of shooting in one... Let's just say the health department must be BLIND.

    That said... great Chinese food is awesome... I now make myself and love every mouthful... you are tempting me to break my vow with your descriptions.

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  23. What a fantastic meal I so wish I could go there...unless you are a pizza delivery guy apparently...gulp. I have never even heard of most of the dishes you ordered.

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  24. I love finding and dining at those hole in the wall places - they pay a lot of attention to their food and the food is almost always authentic.
    Happy Birthday, Poppa!

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  25. I love finding and dining at those hole in the wall places - they pay a lot of attention to their food and the food is almost always authentic.
    Happy Birthday, Poppa!

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  26. Wow, this place sounds awesome, all the specialties you got look and sound spectacular. Thanks for the tip on the menu and ordering in advance, we will sure have to check this place out the next time we're in MD.

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  27. Thanks for all the birthday wishes! (Even though it was a while back. I still feel the love!)

    Anyway, you're all right. I am a lucky guy! Not only do I get to eat all this amazing food but I also get to be married to Trix!

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  28. Grace Garden has spoiled me for all other Chinese food. Today for lunch I have leftover 8-treasure sticky-rice-stuffed duck from a Chinese New Year's feast we had there on Sunday. Glad you've finally tried it!

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  29. Ah, crispy pork belly! I'm in! Now let's see...how far is DC from Asheville?

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  30. I am going to go to Chase Garden - can I join you the next time you go? You are on fire with the recipes and I love your writing style. I am not sold on the salmon mousee eclair thing though. I would have to try it but don't see myself making it! Keep Cookin'!!!

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  31. What a feast. I'm sorry to be late with my birthday wishes for your partner. I'm new to your blog and have just spent some time browsing through your earlier entries. You've created a lovely spot to visit and I really like the food and recipes you feature here. I definitely will be back. Have a great evening. Blessings...Mary

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  32. So yummy ..
    Thanks for share.
    Pork Belly is my favorite dish .

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