This past year there was no shortage of new pizza and dumpling places. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to offer both on one menu. Vuong Loc, of the French/Pacific Northwest Pomerol in Frelard, is that someone. If it sounds outlandish, or even gimmicky, perhaps it is, but China Pie (125 N. 36th St., 545-3911) manages to fuse some of the best flavors of Asia (from Sichuanese to Vietnamese) with those of Italy and the Pacific Northwest, sometimes on one plate. It’s a mashup that’s hard to pin down with a menu that sometimes reads like it came straight from Ethan Stowell territory (fire-roasted broccoli with chili, garlic, and grana), but is also interspersed with mushroom and tofu potstickers, sticky rice with pork belly, chicken pho soup dumplings, and wood-oven fired pizzas ranging from simple (mozzarella, basil, and tomato) to over-the top (foie gras, quail egg, Morbier cheese, and hoisin sauce).
The space itself is refined-minimalist—not unlike neighboring Pomerol—with family photos, some taken in Vietnam, and Maneki-nekos (the waving lucky cat) tucked among bottles of liquor. All this is presented artfully on stark white shelves and lit from behind. Clean, polished wood of varying shades (on floors, tables, the bar) holds everything together. The restraint is commendable, especially since it would have been easy to go kitschy with the decor given the whimsy of the menu.
And actually, despite the eclectic descriptions of many of the dishes, they aren’t in fact brash or indulgent—though at times that’s actually a bit of a detriment. Take the confit chicken wings with basil, chilies, and fish sauce, a generously portioned starter or small plate. They’re quite tasty, but I would never have guessed that they were prepared confit, and the fish sauce is nearly imperceptible. Ditto on the “Uncle Sau” pizza, which boasts caramel fish sauce (also known as nuoc mau), pork, cilantro pesto, jalapeño, fresh mozzarella, and grana. Nuoc man is typically a blast to the taste buds, but here I barely registered its presence, aside from the occasional, slightly tangy, briny bite. The chunks of pork are hearty and good, but overall it was the pesto and jalapeno that really came through—which was fine, but the whole affair felt oversold.
I was a bigger fan of the chowder pie, which comes heaped with shoestring fries beneath which lies mozzarella, béchamel, a couple of small clams in the shell per slice, housemade bacon, and fabulous thick orbs of potato, all amply seasoned with rosemary. But as much as I Iiked it, it also seemed to defy its description: much more of a rosemary/potato concoction than a clam chowder. I’d offer China Pie this advice: Tone down the menu verbiage and let the dishes do the talking.
As for dumplings—the chicken pho soup variety—four medium-sized bundles on the thickish side were a bit of a letdown. Spoon at the ready awaiting the splash of broth that typically comes pouring out when you puncture the skin, I was surprised that nothing in fact drizzled out. They were more like shu mai, dumplings filled with bundles of garlicky meat, scrumptious but not juicy. Soup-dumpling lovers, alas: Keep heading to Din Tai Fung or Vancouver.
A couple of things I really enjoyed, and found inspired and not oversold. Two Szechuan chili oil-baked Olympic oysters bookend a marvelous hunk of octopus with charred lime for squeezing. Raw oysters are such a staple treat in Seattle, it’s nice to occasionally mix it up and actually cook them. Though the Szechuan chili is very understated, the broth of garlic, shallot, and (perhaps) white wine that cradles the oyster is divine and highly slurpable. I liked how the small, sweet oysters accented the heartier octopus—a great play on two local seafood favorites. Likewise, I enjoyed the simplicity of the salad of frisée, a fresh tangle in which hide a few sweet, charred carrots, bites of light, tart blood orange, and a vinaigrette that adds a pop of sesame to the otherwise classic citrus dressing.
If you’re unsure how to approach this menu, sample a bit from every genre to get a good cross-section and try to let go of a thematic sensibility. This restaurant seems intent on forcing you into mixed territory, and you may or may not relish that freedom. If it feels clunky, perhaps a house cocktail will help: The Jael Julep with gin, ginger liqueur, and mint is just gingery enough (and not too sweet), and the Feather Boa, with citrus vodka, triple sec, grapefruit, lime, and egg whites is a tangy, frothy delight. Skip dessert, though: Mocha chiffon cake with chocolate frosting is sickeningly sweet and the push-pops are a clever but ultimately underwhelming conceit. NICOLE SPRINKLE