An Asian Pallas

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

A stone’s throw from the newly opened Pallas is arguably the best Chinese restaurant in metro Detroit: Hong Hua. Both offer upscale Chinese dining at reasonable prices. Both dress their tables in white linen and create an elegant, subdued atmosphere. Both menus avoid the zillion-dish approach. And both are packing ’em in, although the crowd at Pallas is non-Asian, while at Hong Hua it’s predominantly Asian.

Which you will like best depends on your preference for authentic-vs.-Americanized cuisine. Squid is called calamari at Pallas, and you have to ask for chopsticks. But the flavors are Asian, and many patrons within earshot were counting up the number of times they’ve been there since the January opening.

Sonny and Pallas Wang are experienced restaurateurs; for more than 20 years they’ve run the popular Sze-chuan in Canton.

When you walk into Pallas (through doors painted with Chinese characters), you’re greeted by a waterfall of black marble that stretches from the floor to the ceiling. Seating is comfortable and the tables are well-spaced. The color purple dominates in a myriad of shades. Huge vases overflow with pink gladiolus. Along a row of banquets, bamboo trees are planted; they’re lit from below, casting lacy shadows on the wall. Tableware is pristine white porcelain in unusual shapes: Appetizer plates are triangular; serving dishes are rounded diamonds; and dipping sauces come in tiny porcelain squares.

The entrées we tried were mostly winners. It’s fun to see Peking duck on the menu without the usual call-ahead requirement. Traditionally, preparing this dish is a labor-intensive process that involves rubbing the duck with salt and spices and hanging it in the air for some days. Then it’s roasted and finally cut into 120 slices, each showing all the layers of the meat.

Then the duck is dipped into a sauce (plum or hoisin are offered at Pallas), set on a thin pancake, garnished with cucumber and scallions, and rolled into a package. The final course is duck broth made with the bones. (Originally, the meat was given to the servants and the diners only ate the skin.) At Pallas, the dish ($13.95) is simplified; bones are included, with no soup at the end, but it’s still a great treat.

I ordered eggplant hot pot ($11.95), which is served bubbling hot in a covered earthenware bowl. The strips of eggplant are stir-fried with strips of chicken in a gingery sauce. Another nice thing about Pallas is that you’re offered a choice of white or brown rice. A word to the wise: It’s very difficult to eat brown rice with chopsticks.

Home-style tofu ($10.95) is deep-fried and mixed into a stir-fry of vegetables. Shrimp lo mein includes plenty of delicately cooked shrimp, but is light on the vegetables.

Alas, our very fussy teenager was dismayed when she unpacked her moo shu chicken to find that it was missing the pancakes.

The soups and appetizers we tried were lackluster. The co-diner complained that the hot and sour soup lacked the usual bite of vinegar. Won ton soup was better with the won tons filled with shrimp and pork. An appetizer of cold sesame noodles was interesting — thick, cold noodles, flavored by a puddle of soy sauce at the bottom of the bowl, then topped with a peanut butter-and-sesame oil sauce, punctuated with shards of carrots and zucchini. The smoked salmon wrapped in dry tofu skin was way too salty and made one wish for a bagel.

Other appetizers include crowd pleasers: spring rolls, crab Rangoon (who introduced cream cheese to China?), barbecue ribs (atop a little candlelit warmer device reminiscent of a campfire).

The waitstaff at Pallas is young, friendly and full of energy. Our server remembered that we had been there earlier in the week, although he had been working a different part of the room. Desserts are mostly European-type cakes and tortes. If you plan to indulge, consider the chocolate sorbet. It’s incredible.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].