It may come as a surprise that the splashiest high-end Chinese restaurant around isn’t in Seattle, but over in neighboring Bellevue. Peony Kitchen, which aims to evoke the essence of 1930s Shanghai—when the city was likened to the Paris of the East—resides in a modern, 7,000-square-foot space that’s bedecked with Chinese antiquities (or, rather, reproductions of them): everything from vases and stone horses to ceramic tea pots and black and white photos of ’30s Shanghai, and, of course, peonies galore. The effect, which could easily feel cluttered, is instead quite beautiful. The piece de resistance is an entire brick wall in the back that’s been painted with a colorful image of a stylish Shanghainese lounge diva and blooming white peonies. That said, and as much as I appreciated its aesthetic and creature comforts such as plush leather seats, there is a bit of a prefabricated feel to it; an obvious attempt to exclaim that they are an upscale, stylish Chinese restaurant. To many, that will be greatly appreciated. To some, it will ring gimmicky.
Owner Paul Choi (Sushi Maru, CoCo Ramen) created Peony Kitchen to fill a void in the luxury Chinese food sphere. Chef Danna Ma-Hwang runs the kitchen. Born and raised in Canton, China, she has been a longtime caterer, with a loyal clientele among wealthy Chinese companies. She even catered for Chinese President Xi Jinping when he came to Seattle in 2015. Choi and Ma-Hwang toured China before opening Peony Kitchen, and much of the menu stems from what they learned along the way.
Given the sleek, opulent setting and a craft-cocktail bar menu that would fit in at any hip restaurant in Seattle, the sprawling book of a menu may seem incongruent. I was expecting a very tightly-curated one as is the style these days, but that’s where the restaurant cleaves to the traditional. Chinese menus nearly always offer a multitude of dishes, and Peony Kitchen is no exception. Divided into many categories—including small eats, cold plates and salads, main dishes, chef’s recommendations (a Chinese menu hallmark), rice and noodles, vegetables, extras, and desserts—it would take several visits with many fellow diners to try it all. Thus, on one night, with four in tow, I had to be very strategic.
A quick inventory of nearby tables alerted me to the necessity of ordering the whole five-spiced crispy duck. Served in the style of Peking duck, it comes on a beautiful tray on which rests a platter of sliced duck meat overlaid with crispy duck skin. The included pancakes, not the floury ones I had in China, are instead thin and crepe-like, sort of like an oversized dumpling wrapper. Once you pile some of the gorgeously five-spice flavored duck into the pancakes and top it with some fresh scallions, you then drizzle the accompanying plum sauce, which in this case isn’t just the sweet one-note version, but also exuberantly seasoned with five-spice. It would be a great dish if left as that. But Peony Kitchen turns it into a serious showstopper with the addition of candied, grilled lemons that you throw in whole. The sweet acidity works some sort of alchemy on the whole dish, bringing out all the flavors and making it a sweet-savory masterpiece. It’s a well spent $43.
Unfortunately, the tea-smoked chicken, which I’d been particularly looking forward to (nostalgia for my year living in Taiwan and China), was disappointing in comparison. The whole chicken, cut up into parts, was certainly smoky—but with a very artificial taste. And the notes of tea just weren’t present. There was a tasty ginger scallion sauce served with it, but it didn’t seem to go with the dish. Tea-smoked chicken is meant to delicately impart the essence of tea, not be obliterated by strong sauces.
The Tung Po pork belly was well-presented in a clay pot under flame, and our server adroitly cut the glistening piece of it into four cubes, one for each of us. The perfectly square bites looked almost like beautiful chocolates, a layer of silky sauce on top could have been a smooth ganache. The pork belly was fall-apart tender without being overly fatty, and it came with steamed buns to make little sandwiches.
Wok tossed Angus beef with leeks was solid, but not extraordinary, though I did love the abundance of super thin slices of leeks, and the intensity of the garlic. Likewise, the Peony signature chow fun, was fine; the thickly-cut, dense noodles are great, but the chicken and seafood was on the dry, flavorless side.
Besides those main dishes, we dabbled in small eats—including a few from the happy hour menu—as well. The bang bang chicken wings were huge and plentiful, expertly crisped on the outside and juicy inside. Pan-fried Kurobuta pork buns were also delightful. If you’re familiar with the soft, doughy pork buns, this gently fried iteration is a nice change. The pork filling wasn’t all sweet barbecue, but more complex, with flavors built out by garlic and scallions. A special appetizer that night—salt and pepper prawns—yielded four of the largest head-on shrimp I’ve ever encountered, and they came thoroughly dusted in salt, pepper, panko, and jalapenos. These fried shrimp aren’t the pop-in-your-mouth variety; it took some cutting up to achieve bite-size portions. Sadly, the salt and pepper played backseat to the panko, so that intense umami flavor just wasn’t quite there. A cucumber salad was especially memorable though, with giant chunks of cucumber commingling with wood ear mushrooms, all doused in a salty, sesame sauce.
There’s clearly much to be savored here, but with a menu so large, ups and downs are inevitable. Are there dishes that you’d get at Peony Kitchen as good as ones at an old standby in Seattle ID? Absolutely. But there are also plenty of ones that fall short. But the five-spiced duck alone is reason to come—again and again.