Shanghai has historically been ahead of the trends. China’s largest and most wealthy city was, back in the 1930s, known as “The Paris of the East, and the New York of the West.” The culture was consistently vibrant, and at the epicenter: the cuisine.
We’d wager that very few — if any at all — of us were around to experience it firsthand, but a Chinese restaurant in Old Bellevue aims to give us a glimpse back in time to that rousing period.
In both atmosphere and cuisine, Peony Modern Kitchen, located on Bellevue’s Main Street, pays homage to its classical Chinese roots. But it is not antiquated or stuffy — on the contrary, the restaurant incorporates modern touches to elevate the traditional methods.
The decor is reminiscent of a ’30s speakeasy in Shanghai’s blossoming downtown. A wall of exposed brick is painted in the style of a vintage mural, featuring a lounge diva of the period. The deeply stained woods, warm lighting, and leather seats contain the panache of a bygone era. But the exposed industrial ceiling and metal accents bring in a freshness that prevents archaism.
The food — the real star of the show — has the same sense of both old and new; dishes are modern interpretations of classic Chinese cuisine. Before opening the restaurant in 2017, owner Paul Choi and head chef Danna Hwang, determined to bring this vision into reality, realized they needed to do some research.
“We traveled everywhere,” Hwang said. “All over China, but also Taiwan, New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver, searching for new tastes and ideas combined together with the old.”
After extensive travel and tastings, the pair had found enough inspiration to fill pages and pages of the new eatery’s menu. That’s right — pages. This restaurant stays true to the Chinese custom of offering an extensive menu with a myriad of dishes, a departure from the highly curated, one-page menus of today’s fine dining establishments. But dish after dish reveals that the flavors and techniques stay true to those fine dining standards.
A perfect example of the restaurant’s ideology can be captured in one signature dish: the Tea Smoked Chicken. The platter arrives within a glass dome, and hungry patrons can’t quite make out their meal, due to it being shrouded in a dense smoke. With as much pageantry as he can muster, your server slowly removes the glass lid and rotates it upward — causing waves of smoke to engulf the table. An aroma of chrysanthemum tea and marinated chicken emanates from the air. As the smoke clears, a perfectly plated roasted chicken is revealed. The taste of the tea is embedded in the meat, and, when combined with a dollop of green onion pesto dipping sauce, a symphony of aromatics cascades across your taste buds.
Tea smoking is an ancient Chinese method of preparing meat. Traditionally, it was used more for food preservation than infusing flavors. But the adaptation at Peony achieves its aim of a tribute to the time-honored practice with the introduction of contemporary tastes.
Executive chef Hwang told us that she likes her dishes to tell a story. And that intention is evident in countless dishes. We loved the handmade BBQ Pork Buns, a recently released addition that has become an instant favorite for its embrace of the traditional; the Tiger Prawns Dumplings, which are an explosion of flavor wrapped in a delicate casing; Firecracker Chicken, fried chicken breaded with garlic and chile pepper, piled high with dried peppers; the Grilled BBQ Pork; the Garlic Crispy Chicken; and last, but certainly not least, the Juicy Kurobuta Dumplings. With an emphasis on “juicy,” these dumplings were the first to vanish from our overflowing table.
We highly recommend visiting Peony during happy hour to take advantage of its specials menu with discounted prices. Every day from 4-6 p.m., and again after 8 p.m., visitors can pick from a lengthy list of items starting at $5. Give as many dishes a try as you can fit in your grateful stomach, and top it off with a draft beer or cocktail in true speakeasy tradition.