Meizhou Dongpo is the classiest Sichuan dining room in the county. Agreeable seating, engaged service, and shimmery touches of elegance instantly elevate this Chinese newcomer above its considerable competition.
Open since March, Meizhou Dongpo is the first O.C. outpost of this 120-unit Beijing restaurant chain owned by husband and wife Wang Gang and Liang Di. Most branches are in China, and its only California siblings are in Arcadia and Century City. The Irvine launch is a confident debut, retooling a freestanding 6,000-square-foot Marie Callender’s in bustling Culver Plaza, so access to this aspirational venue is easy, and plentiful parking is free.
Beyond that, it’s all about the duck—Beijing-style roast duck (whole, $77; half, $40)— cooked to order and meticulously sliced into tender petals, crowned with crackling amber skin. Coaxing such concentrated flavors and complementary textures from duck does not come easy or we would all be roasting it at home. No, just leave those weeks of aging, drying, and lacquering to experts like these who have been at it since 1996.
The duck slices arrive precisely splayed on an oval platter, along with the traditional fixings—slivers of cucumber, scallions, a pot of duck sauce, and an aluminum steamer of stacked bing, the lace-thin crepes to load as you wish. Much more delicate than the bouncy, bready bao buns served elsewhere, these steamy, handmade wrappers allow all those complex flavors to capture your palate’s attention. Yes, the fixings are skimpily portioned, the duck cools too fast, and the 50-minute wait feels interminable, but the pain is somewhat manageable. Order it on your server’s first pass and expect it to be the last course. Request more sauce and scallions if needed, which is likely.
As the lovely duck roasts, tame your hunger with scores of dishes from the king-size menu of glossy pages with tempting photos. One section is devoted to “seefood,” much of it market priced. This includes the oft-Instagrammed sweet-and-sour fish. Carved and battered to puff up like a golden pine cone, the tilapia is served in a pool of too-sweet sauce, tinged with tomato. Distinct sweetness is also a surprise in the kung pao chicken because the assertive Sichuan peppercorns I was hoping for were nonexistent. In search of that incendiary dream, mapu tofu comes through with heat, mostly from red chile oil, but the soft, oily tofu offers scant pleasure. Good news though: Dan dan noodles and country-style sliced pork, both humble compared to the lofty duck, deliver big on savory joy. The noodles are pleasantly springy and, mixed with the zesty ground pork, demand to be eaten in one go. The serving is almost too small to share, but at $6, there’s no reason to divvy up delight. Garlic, bell pepper, and soy team to make the thin, spiced country pork a comforting wok affair that begs for rice, so do order some. Sautéed sliced beef filet with black pepper is hardly exotic, but the beef is nicely cooked, liberally seasoned, and well-marbled.
Be prepared for some textural play with the minced chicken pudding soup, a pristine broth with a floating cap of white chicken meat transformed into a cloud with the texture of the fluffiest matzo ball ever. It’s low-key, but interesting. Pea tips are the go-to green here—wok-fired to heighten the verve of the snow pea plant’s young leaves and hollow stalks.
Servers are mostly pleasant and patient when there isn’t a line at the door. But when the hordes press in, proceedings get hurried and clanging dishware abounds. Three handsome private rooms are an inviting alternative, provided your party meets the $400 lunch minimum.
As successful Chinese restaurant groups ride the current into California, expect to see more big names such as Hai Di Lao, Din Tai Fung, and Meizhou Dongpo on our dining scene. Hey, if China can welcome KFC and McDonald’s, the least we can do is return the love for hot pots, juicy dumplings, and Peking duck.
15363 Culver Drive
5 BEST DISHES: Roast duck, Dan dan noodles, Country-style sliced pork, Sautéed beef filet, Pea tips
PRICE RANGE $6 to $77
FYI At lunch, order duck before 2 p.m.; the restaurant closes at 2:45 to prepare for dinner service.
Our Dining Section Opener:
THE DISH Tilapia served on a pool of tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce
THE DETAILS Meticulously sculpted into the shape of a pine cone, the fish is then fried and glazed.
THE PRICE $48