East Hugs West

For subtle, nuanced fusion, find this Rocky River pearl.

The Thai-inspired Satay Strip Steak, on a bed of onions and asparagus. - Walter Novak
The Thai-inspired Satay Strip Steak, on a bed of onions and asparagus.
Fusion cuisine has gotten a bad rap lately, and not entirely without cause. Too often, a kitchen's forced, cross-cultural commingling of pantries has led down wacky trails lined with dishes designed to shock rather than delight. Or as one wag put it, "Sure, it jumps off the plate at you -- but does it have to chase you around the room?"

Fortunately, not all fusion fare is so aggressive. Take some of the dishes coming out of the kitchen at Rocky River's Pearl of the Orient: Subtle, nuanced, and approachable, they hug, rather than hijack, the taste buds.

Among them, count the kitchen's Five-Spice Calamari, bite-size bits of squid, dusted in cornstarch and a whisper of anise-y five-spice powder, then deep-fried to barely crisp perfection. Swoosh them through some homemade chile-garlic dipping sauce -- a sassy, tropical twirl of citrus and sweet heat -- and the result is a mouthwatering example of international détente.

It's no surprise when owner George Hwang credits that dish, and several others, to veteran Cleveland chef Michelle Gaw. After leaving the now-defunct Watermark several years back, Gaw spent some time consulting for Pearl, helping Hwang put a global spin on his traditional Chinese menu. Gaw's influence is apparent in everything from the spicy pineapple-lime salsa, which accompanies a starter of coconut shrimp, to the rich vanilla cheesecake, which anchors the list of homemade sweet endings.

Hwang also has added a sushi menu. While the list contains few surprises, the offerings are well executed. During a recent visit, yellowtail nigiri sushi seemed impeccably fresh and mild-flavored. And for a meat-free pal, the Vegetable Boat offered passage to veggie heaven, with its tasty cargo of avocado, tofu, wakame, mushroom, and cucumber-based sushi.

Hwang's expansionary vision didn't stop with sushi. When the 23-year-old eatery briefly closed for remodeling in 2006, the restaurateur added a handful of Thai and Vietnamese favorites. As a result, today's bill of fare is a big one: It includes fusion-inspired dishes like sliced strip steak, settled on a bed of lightly stir-fried carrots, onions, and asparagus tips, and stroked with a mild satay sauce; pad thai; pho bo (beef noodle soup); and Mongolian duck, featuring shredded house-smoked breast meat, tossed with carrots, onions, scallions, and bean sprouts, and then finished in a gingery hoisin. On the side, firm, nutty brown rice adds a wholesome touch. Or order the slender flour pancakes and try your hand at burrito building, Asian style. (Incidentally, while 23 years may seem an extraordinary life span for a restaurant, Hwang's sister, Rose Wong, holds the family record for dining-spot longevity. She opened the Pearl of the Orient location on the East Side in Shaker Heights in 1978.)

The menu wasn't the only thing to get a makeover during last year's hiatus. A window-lined dining room and pleasant, awning-covered porch have been added, bringing the seating capacity up to around 150 and contributing some artful sizzle to the space. Tables in the svelte, L-shaped dining room gleam in citrusy shades of lime and lemon, while a long faux-granite countertop can accommodate drinkers, diners, and sushi fans. Alternatively, warm-weather guests can pull up chairs to sturdy wooden tables on the shady porch and dine among a host of bloom-filled window boxes.

Beyond the salsa-making, duck-smoking, and dessert-baking, Hwang's kitchen typically uses fresh (not frozen) ingredients, eschews MSG, and cooks each dish to order. But if we have one complaint, it's that flavors are sometimes too subtle. For instance, a boring chicken, almond, and fresh-fruit stir-fry in a bland white-wine reduction was too sweet to complement the chicken, but not sweet enough to honor the fruit. And a few more fermented black beans in the underseasoned toss of scallops, shrimp, and Chinese wheat noodles (another entrée) would have added some much-needed zip.

To drink, the bar offers anything from a Mai Tai to a martini to a glass of Merlot. During our visit, the small draft-beer selection included Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold and Eliot Ness ($4.50 for a 22-ounce pour). In bottles, we spotted Tsingtao ($3.50) and Kirin Ichiban ($5.25). The moderately priced wine list includes plenty of whites, ideal for accompanying Pacific Rim fare. And a promotion that rewards wine drinkers with a $10 gift certificate for each bottle they buy is a steal.

Besides the cheesecake (good, but needlessly garnished with excess bottled dessert syrup), a well-crafted apple-caramel egg roll made an appropriately sweet ending, combining the crispness of fried wontons with a sweet, fruity burst; ask for it sided with giant scoops of green-tea ice cream from Cleveland's own Mitchell brothers for an additional touch of luxe.

That's what we did, and like a fusion-style spin on apple pie à la mode, the sweetie jumped right off the plate and into our waiting maws. But did it chase us round the table? Not for a second -- and that's just the way we like it.