My original title for this posting was “Selosse and Szechuan.” It may sound like a tantalizing if odd fantasy match-up. It very nearly came true during a recent visit to Margaret Kuo’s Dragon’s Lair in Wayne. Jacques Selosse Blanc de Blancs was listed on the “holiday selections” drink list placed on our table. How Selosse Champagne came to be on a wine list in a suburban Chinese restaurant in the archaic wine state of Pennsylvania I don’t know. How it might have paired with Ms. Kuo's food I can only try to imagine. The fact that I took a pass on it still irks me. But as my dining companions were sticking with tea, I settled for a Tsingtao as thoughts of the Selosse that could have been nagged at my inner wine guy throughout lunch.
The availability of the Selosse turned out to be a fitting presage of the overall dining experience at Margaret Kuo’s. A typical, casual Chinese-American joint it’s not. The carryout menu gives a practically minded nod or two to some of the popular standards of American-Chinese fare. When dining in, however, Kuo’s menu is a touch more elevated, specialized and unafraid of eschewing many clichéd dishes. It’s also a touch more expensive, with most entrées priced in the $20s. Based largely on the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province, with a particular specialization in Chengdu regional fare, there are options for the adventurous of palate as well as for tamer tastes.
In keeping with the menu and pricing, the atmosphere is also more rarified than the norm. White tablecloths, highly attentive service, ornate decorative flair and serene background music combine to make the Dragon’s Lair one of the more formal – if slightly sterile – destinations for Chinese cuisine in the Philadelphia area. This might be just your thing if you’re looking for a quiet, intimate spot for Sunday lunch. We shared the dining room with only a few other guests during our visit. The pace, I’m sure, gets a bit more hopping during evening hours, yet ample elbow room and table spacing should still make for a relaxed experience.
We started with one of the best hot and sour soups I’ve ever had, a vegetarian version that focuses on fresh ingredients and bright flavors while avoiding the gelatinous, murky nature of many lesser renditions. Amply spiked with freshly ground black pepper, it was chock full of fresh, snappy, woodsy tasting shiitake mushrooms. Sold as soup for two, we found it ample for sharing among three. Pan-fried fish and chive dumplings were zesty if not ethereal; I preferred them without their overly salty side of dipping sauce.
An order of Imperial Shrimp delivered an ample plate of jumbo shrimp dressed with a sweet and sour mandarin glaze. The relative absence of vegetarian main courses was circumvented by the veggie among us by ordering two vegetable sides in place of a main. Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce was a well executed, vibrantly purple version of a Chinatown staple. Stir-fried Lotus Root and Lily Bulbs were mildly sweet, crunchy and attractively aromatic. A well cooked but basic filet of pan-sautéed sea bass was brought to life by its crumbled topping of hauntingly tangy, smoky cured pork.
And that wine list. Aside from the Selosse anomaly, there is a well-chosen if small core of complementary wines available, including Savennières from Domaine des Baumard, a modest selection of German and Alsace Rieslings, and a fair range of lighter, aromatic reds from Beaujolais and Oregon among other regions. Then there’s the intentionally impressive side of the list: Châteaux Margaux and Latour, dozens of trophy California Cabernets, and fairly big hitter White Burgundies. Two-thirds of the list would be more at home – and more appropriately matched – with the food in an expense account steak house. Of course, given the numerous preparations of beef filet – another slight anomaly on the menu – that may just be the target audience Ms. Kuo is seeking.
I’ll be back nonetheless. If the food we enjoyed on our visit was any indication, the Dragon’s Lair is too good not to demand a return visit. Next time, it’ll be for the Peking duck. And, keeping my fingers crossed, a bottle of Selosse Blanc de Blancs.
Margaret Kuo's Dragon’s Lair
175 E. Lancaster Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087