By the time David Mao announced his retirement in February, he had worked in - and in some cases owned - several restaurants in Raleigh over a span of 35 years.
Mao's career paralleled the area's growing culinary sophistication, from the basic Chinese-American fare he cooked in earlier restaurants such as Mandarin House, to the more ambitious contemporary spin on Chinese and Vietnamese home cooking he served up for the last eight years at The Duck & Dumpling in downtown Raleigh. When Mao sold his share in that restaurant, a familiar face disappeared from the local dining scene.
But not for long, as it turns out. Almost immediately, the veteran chef began feeling the pull to return to the kitchen. Six months after he had hung up his chef's apron, he tied it back on, rolled up his sleeves and opened David's Dumpling & Noodle Bar.
The sleeve-rolling was in preparation for making the handmade dumplings and noodles that are the restaurant's specialty.
Variations on the dumpling theme range from steamed siu mai and vegetarian Marco Polo to deep-fried crispy spicy wontons, pucker-topped purses filled with a savory mixture of tiny shrimp and ground pork. In the middle ground between the delicate yin of the steamed dumplings and the crunchy, assertively spiced yang of the wontons are David's Original half-fried dumplings, which are first steamed and then pan-fried to a texture that's reminiscent of pot stickers. Fans of the half-fried dumplings Mao made popular at The Duck & Dumpling will be happy to know that they're as addictive as ever.
The menu lists a dozen noodle dishes and soups, covering the pan-Asian spectrum from lo mein to pad thai to Singapore rice stick noodles to pho. If you're looking for house-made noodles, though, stick with dishes featuring wheat or egg noodles, which Mao says he typically makes himself. Braised beef with wheat noodles is a good bet, as are dry-sautéed egg noodles with Chinese greens. And you won't go wrong with roasted pork and dumpling egg noodle soup, a country cousin of the namesake specialty at the Duck & Dumpling.
Mao has revived a few of his signature entrees from that restaurant, too, including steamed Chilean sea bass (which, unfortunately, tasted a bit fishy when I ordered it) and filet mignon Chinois. Portions are smaller and presentations simpler at the new restaurant, though, in keeping with the more casual setting, and prices are correspondingly lower. Most entrees are $10 or less, and the most expensive will set you back $16.50.
To say that the new restaurant's menu is a downscale rehash of the old one, however, would be an oversimplification. It's more accurate to say that the menu is a culinary encore performance serving up a medley of dishes spanning David Mao's career, interspersed with a few new compositions.
Notable newcomers are a handful of Malaysian dishes, including chicken satay, noodle soup and a Malaysian chicken coconut curry redolent of ginger, garlic and chiles. A small portion of the curry, served with flaky Indian roti for dipping, makes a winning starter.
The chef's takes on familiar Chinese favorites - kung pao shrimp, beef with orange peel, mu shu pork with steamed bun, and General "Mao's" chicken, to name a few - are better than what you get at your neighborhood takeout shop. Vegetarian dishes are well represented, too, with half a dozen options such as sesame tofu and sautéed straw mushrooms with broccoli.
Still, it's the restaurant's namesake specialties that set it apart. Well, that and the decor. Mao has transformed the space that was previously the home of Darryl's and Red Hot & Blue - havens of American kitsch if there ever were one - into an urban chic mélange of exposed brick, ivory banquettes, white paper lanterns and a long mahogany bar (where the noise level is somewhat lower than in the cavernous dining room).
Hanging on the walls are photo collages in muted shades - some of Asian vegetables, skeins of noodles and other ingredients, and others of a larger-than-life David Mao rolling out dough and filling dumplings. It's good to see that the familiar face is back, and in all the pictures it's smiling.