by Mel Small
According to a Chinese legend, Peng Lai was a mountain on a mystical island to which the all-powerful Eight Immortals journeyed for a fabulous banquet. Like Atlantis, the Peng Lai legend has led generations of Chinese to search for this mythical Shangri-la. Fortunately, in modestly elevated Rochester Hills (810 feet above sea level), we can easily find our own Peng Lai, a stylish new restaurant that opened last September that offers mere mortals trendy Asian fusion at down-to-earth prices.
Partners Tom Lin of Szechuan Empire and Thai Basil renown and Bob and Shannon Stefanovski have handsomely decorated their restaurant in the bustling Papa Joe's Shopping Center with art deco chandeliers, marble tables, and high serpentine booths that complement the attractive serpentine bar. Both the opulent decor and the wide-ranging menu created by executive chef David Wu evoke comparisons to Mon Jin Lau, the doyenne of the Nu-Asian scene.
While the kitchen turns out a few Korean, Malayan and Thai preparations, China and Japan dominate. Peng Lai's relatively small space, which can handle 80 indoors and another 55 on the warm-weather terrace overlooking the mammoth strip-mall parking lot, precludes a visible sushi bar; the little delights are constructed in the kitchen.
Although the prices of some of the colorful appetizers approach those of some of the entrées, they should be sampled — and shared. Tender grilled bulgogi, beef strips simmered in a piquant Korean barbecue sauce ($10.50) and the more unusual Peking duck gyros ($11) in pita with yogurt, tomato, onion, spinach and hoisin sauce are two recommended starters although I would ask for extra sauce to moisten the inspired, if somewhat dry sandwich. Similarly, I would request extra lettuce for the chicken wrap ($8), a crunchy combination of chicken tidbits, mushrooms and water chestnuts, also with sweet hoisin sauce.
Seaweed in sesame dressing ($3.50) sounds off-putting to Westerners, who constitute most of the patrons. Nonetheless, Aaron, Samantha and Brendan — three 10-year olds who have disdain for spinach, broccoli and most green things — gave the sweet sea greens a surprising thumbs-up. Other starters include the familiar shrimp tempura, crab Rangoon, teriyaki chicken, potstickers and basil chili calamari. Speaking of the familiar, a special section of Peng Lai's menu is devoted to such old-fashioned classics as chow mein, chop suey, sweet and sour chicken and the one everyone likes to pronounce, moo goo gai pan.
Dinners come with soup or an underwhelming salad that is mostly iceberg lettuce. Among the soups, the simple delicate wonton, another throwback to the red-booth, fortune-cookies, mom-and-pop joints, is a better bet than the hot and sour.
Leading the "house specials," which average around $16, is the "Four Treasures," a substantial platter of chicken, beef, shrimp, scallops and vegetables in a mildly spicy garlic-ginger sauce, a winning combination with a satisfying afterburn.
Even milder and certainly sweeter is the sesame shrimp dish composed of generously proportioned crisp and tender shrimp. Other specials include General Tso's chicken, a fusion-stretching New York strip steak with Asian zip sauce (one of Tom Lin's own creations), and "Triple Fragrance," a sizzling platter of beef, prawns, scallops and vegetables.
Beyond the house specials, ordinary entrées average about $12 for chicken or vegetarian variations, with scallops or beef or shrimp slightly more expensive. Here one can find seven or eight different regional cuisines from Hunan and Szechuan in China to Thailand's basil- or chili-accented sauces. The artfully composed dishes, which come with a sculpted tower of rice, are served on graceful white tableware marked with the Peng Lai logo. Of note are the potentially incendiary Penang red curry with eggplant, pineapple, carrots and bamboo shoots from Malaya, and the smoother mélange of mango ginger, onions and green pepper. The skillful servers are quick to respond to requests to tone down or fire up spice levels.
The noodle and rice section of the menu offers the now ubiquitous Singapore or drunken noodle foundations for beef, shrimp, chicken, vegetarian or vegetarian soy. Peng Lai's kitchen is vegetarian-friendly and MSG-free, and can compose gluten- or wheat-free meals. It is also tot-friendly with a choice of four children's meals ($6.50) such as that old reliable chicken strips and fries.
The well-selected wine list contains quite a few decent bottles for less than $30, although that raises the perennially perplexing question of what wine goes best with Asian food. Because of the unusually wide variety of seasonings and sauces that accompany Peng Lai's fusion experience, beer may be the best bet.
Also worth nothing: The restaurant has live entertainment most Thursday through Saturday evenings.
Considering its menu, clientele, and upscale trappings, Peng Lai aspires to provide for the far suburbs what the venerable Mon Jin Lau provides for the nearer suburbs. It is certainly off to a good start and is a lot easier to find than its mythological namesake floating in the mists somewhere in the South China Sea.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.