It was a Saturday night at New Asia in Germantown, and festive family parties filled the round tables, with diners ranging in age from 7 to 70. The atmosphere was generally merry, but we were feeling anxious.
We had already ordered from the "Authentic Menu." (New Asia regulars say you have to order from the red menu, not the green one; the latter, apparently, is just for tourists.) But as we watched steaming or sizzling plates of desirable items arriving at nearby tables, we were afraid we hadn't ordered wisely. One of us wandered up to look at the board of specials over the lobster tank near the entrance, and a pretty young woman at the desk asked sweetly, "Would you like some suggestions?" Too late, we told her, we had already ordered.
But no mistakes had been made.
The winter melon soup — named for the fuzzy gourd that provides a colorless, somewhat sweet flesh — also was filled with carrots, snow peas and chunks of chicken. Like all the New Asia soups, it relied on a well-made broth.
A half Peking duck came still on the bone, savory and tender, with the classic accompaniment of rice biscuits, crispy slices of skin and scallions on the side. (Air pumped into the duck separates the skin from the fat, then the skin is oven-roasted.) A sweet hoisin sauce balances the gamey taste of the dark meat.
New Asia serves sole deep-fried, sauteed and braised, and we chose the first of the three, "with spicy salt." (Believe the description, and have a full glass of water beside you.) The portion and size of the fillets are luxurious and they are delicately fried in light and airy batter, placed on "crackers" of fried fins.
On a second visit, Gina Hu was once again behind the front desk. Her parents, Kuang and Yong Hu, opened New Asia seven years ago, and she has seen the furrowed brows of diners staring down more than 100 menu choices before. We consulted with her and she performed quick Chinese-menu therapy. Seafood, or beef and pork? Noodles or rice? Spicy? Fried? Then she circled five dishes, two of which we ordered.
The sizzling scallops with black pepper arrived on a hot iron platter making the appropriate sputtering and crackling noises. Kitchens often treat the scallop cautiously, to avoid overwhelming its delicate flavor, but in its sizzling dish, New Asia slathers the shellfish with all forms of peppers — bell, black, hot — as well as onions. The scallops — sorry, but this trite phrase just fits too well — melt in your mouth.
The seafood pan-fried noodles Hu suggested are a meal for two. The sauteed noodles are the backdrop for a gratifying jumble of squid, baby octopus and shrimp along with pea plant and the occasional carrot. The one ingredient you might edit out of this dish is the faux crab.
We strayed over to the traditional menu for lunch one day, marveling at what we received for $6.25. The Kung Pao shrimp was nicely done with plenty of peanuts, water chestnuts, carrots, onions and snow peas, and came with a fluffy vegetable fried rice. It was preceded by a small spring roll, crab Rangoon and a biscuit dusted with sugar.
A rich chicken stock provided a hearty medium for the dumpling noodle soup on the lunch menu, which, aside from the noodles and four or five meat-filled dumplings, was thick with the mildly sweet stalks and stems of the snow pea plant.
(I had just seen an enticing stack of those greens on a serving plate at a neighboring table and asked if we could have a small portion. "No," the server said. Maybe she knew they would come in my soup ...)
The servers, if not thoroughly fluent in English, are efficient and good-natured, a style that works well with the practical physical environment at New Asia. The brightly-lit dining room suggests a church recreation room, which suits the many large parties this place attracts.
Gina Hu, thoroughly fluent not only in English but also in the language of the culinary arts, will be returning to graduate school in Atlanta soon, so she won't be available for menu consultations. But you will have a hard time stumbling onto food at New Asia that doesn't meet a very high standard of fresh and expert preparation.
New Asia Restaurant
Address: 2075 Exeter Road, Germantown
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reviewer’s choices: Sizzling scallops with black pepper, $13.75; seafood pan fried noodles, $9.75; Peking duck, half, $15.25.
Alcohol: Beer and wine.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars