Monday, September 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Margaret Kuo's

The Naluto roll.                                      (John Costello / Inquirer)
The Naluto roll. (John Costello / Inquirer)
About the restaurant
175 E. Lancaster Ave.
Wayne, PA 19087
(610) 688-7200
Rating:
Neighborhood: Wayne Parking: Street parking only
Hours: 7 days (lunch and dinner)
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Payment methods:
American Express
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: Chinese
Meals Served: Lunch Dinner
Style: The queen of Chinese cuisine in the suburbs has opened a gorgeous two-story outpost on the Main Line with a Chinese dining room on the main floor and a Japanese menu upstairs. The sushi is very good, but the refined Chinese fare is what distinguishes this restaurant. Only inconsistent service holds it back.
Specialties: Chinese: Shandong wonton soup; Shanghai steamed buns; Peking duck square appetizer; Peking duck; Mandarin duck; lamb stew; Shanghai provincial pork; tofu w/bamboo heart; ginger steamed whole fish. Japanese: iso maki roll; o-toro sashimi; usuzukuri.
Alcohol: A superb international selection, with several fine choices by the glass. But try one of the excellent cold sakes (Iyo Densetsu or Itten, $28 a carafe). Premium teas such as Dragonwell and Pouchong are also a delight.

The carved stone dragons and warrior horses that grace the walls of the Dragon's Lair pay homage to the great Tang Dynasty.

After all, says Margaret Kuo, the Tang years (618-906 A.D.) were a golden age for China, when its culture was introduced in Japan. And since this Chinese-themed room at Kuo's year-old restaurant in Wayne is crowned with the beautiful Japanese Akari Room on the second floor (the two serve separate menus), it seems an apt motif.

It is the Kuo dynasty, however, that deserves its due for creating this handsome Asia-plex, a tall pink facade with burgundy trim that stands proudly amid Wayne's bustling downtown. And if the restaurant fully realizes its potential, it will become the best tribute to the mission - to present authentic Chinese cooking in the suburbs - that has energized Kuo's nearly 30-year career.

That's a dynasty by any measure in the restaurant business. But Kuo's reign is even more notable for the quixotic nature of her restaurants - two called Peking, and a Tokyo, all in Media, and a Mandarin in Frazer. Though she serves a mainstream crowd I suspect would do just fine with General Tsao's chicken, Kuo has always also presented authentic regional rarities such as braised Shanghai pork shoulder, spicy Mandarin stews, and exquisite steamed buns that gush streams of broth when you take a bite.

It's thrilling to stumble upon an elegant gem like Peking hiding between Sears and J.C. Penney at the Granite Run Mall. But there is no element of surprise at her major debut on the Main Line. And Margaret Kuo's in Wayne has all the markings of a centerpiece destination. Consistently acting the part will be the restaurant's biggest challenge.

It is one of the more beautiful recent additions to the Main Line's dining scene, from the plush earth-tone banquettes, tall ornate vases, and carved stone reliefs in the Dragon's Lair to the contemporary style of the Akari Room, with its illuminated rice paper-walled booths and sleek bamboo-scrimmed tatami rooms.

There is a first-class wine list, a great selection of premium sakes (try the Iyo Densetsu), and special loose teas served on request in artful wrought-iron pots.

The food from both the Chinese and Japanese menus is as excellent as at Kuo's other venues.

But the service can be frustratingly uneven. One minute, a gong rings and you have chef Wei Wong tableside, masterfully cleaving an entire Peking duck down to a sweet pile of moist meat and mahogany skin that a veteran waiter wielding a pair of spoons then rolls up in housemade pancakes.

But next time, you may get a total rookie who, despite two reconnaissance trips, can't report the list of specials and forgets the spoons for the soup and the dishes of soy sauce for the sushi. More than once, we ordered entrees that were never delivered - even by the veteran, who pretty much disappeared as the meal progressed.

Kuo's deserves a real ambassador in the dining room, since many of its unusual dishes require explanation. Try eating a Shanghai steamed bun bulging with broth without any instruction and you'll likely end up, as I did, mopping the table.

This is less an issue with the Japanese menu, which features standard teriyaki and tempura dishes and familiar, though excellent, sushi. Among the best were the snow-white slices of buttery o-toro tuna belly, the ponzu sauce-splashed fan of sliced fluke called usuzukuri, and the marvelous iso maki special, which rolls tuna, yellowtail and crunchy apple with tempura flakes in tender white seaweed.

But Kuo's Chinese specialties are what set the restaurant apart. Most Chinese kitchens never get beyond quick stir-fries. But Kuo's best dishes come from hours of preparation.

The Shanghai pork shoulder is like an exotic pork osso buco, a massive ring of meat luxuriating in a deep, mildly sweet anise-flavored gravy. Chile spice sings more assertively through the Mandarin lamb stew, which brings morsels of lean, tender meat and chunks of daikon radish.

As for the signature Peking duck, I doubt there's a better one around. The honeyed skin is as crisp as a cracker, the meat satiny, and the homemade pancakes memorably pliant.

Margaret Kuo's, it turns out, does many duck delights. The Mandarin braised duck arrives over a starburst of Chinese broccoli. I peeled back the soft chestnut-colored skin to find some of the moistest, most naturally flavored fowl I've tasted.

At the other end of the texture spectrum are ingenious duck squares, in which shredded meat and skin are pressed and crisped - like Peking duck power bars - into the ultimate snack that quacks.

There were a few disappointments. The orchid shrimp were overcooked. The rack of veal special was chewy and its black pepper sauce one-dimensional. The Japanese tuna tartare was minced to mush, while the Szechuan dumplings were too garlicky. And I can't understand why a fine Chinese meal is followed by a list of mundane frozen Italian desserts.

But there is far more here to love. There are delicate wonton soups laced with chicken and pork in the house-special version or spiked with scallions and spicy Szechuan pickles in the Shandong. There is a surprisingly hearty shark fin soup whose translucent clusters of noodle-like fins are bolstered with shiitake mushrooms and crab. There are whole branzinos steamed to natural succulence under a shower of ginger and soy.

Kuo says Main Liners have been more adventurous than her Media crowd, though I doubt there will be a run on the jellyfish salad or beef tripe with noodles.

One unlikely item, though, has been popular: tofu with bamboo, essentially cloudlike fritters of mashed tofu and scallops topped with a velvety crab sauce and gauzy ribbons of bamboo heart.

They're savory and crunchy and fluffy, and I couldn't stop eating them - even if they were tofu. That shows what a great dynasty can do.


Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

 

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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