In the olden days, if you wanted food delivered to your door, it had to be Chinese or pizza. Then for a short while, you could get almost anything delivered from the various restaurant delivery services, but nowadays, it seems to be pizza, or pizza or else pizza that you can get brought to your home or office.
Well, for those of you who like to eat your moo gai pan on the couch in front of the TV, or munch on dumplings at your desk, rejoice! Peony "” healthy Chinese cuisine, has come to Laguna and opened in the food court on Broadway. They deliver all day long, every day of the week for a very nominal fee.
Their cuisine might best be described as hybrid-Chinese. In fact, unless you go to Garden Grove or Monterey Park, all Chinese food in the area is actually a hybrid.
Peony mixes in a touch of Thai, a hint of Korean, a bit of Japanese and a whopping dose of healthy.
They use considerably less oil, and the oil they do use is either canola or, by request, olive. Their noodle dishes may be ordered with organic whole grain noodles and brown rice is offered as an alternative to white. Chicken dishes feature white meat only and although they have beef, there is no pork. They use deep-sea fish, wild shrimp and only fresh fruit and vegetables, nothing canned.
So for something different and for us to evaluate the experience that you can anticipate, we decided to have dinner delivered. (You also have the option of picking it up or eating it outdoors in the food court.)
Our appetizer was pan-fried chicken dumplings. These were lightly fried and stuffed with minced white meat chicken seasoned with ginger and a smidgen of napa cabbage. This mildly flavored filling didn’t have the usual complement of other chopped vegetables that add extra layers of color and flavor, but they were plump with chicken. The wrapping was nice and chewy "” not greasy, as fried dumplings often are.
The Thai style hot and sour soup (tom yum) exemplifies the hybrid nature of the menu. This is definitely not the spicy, sweet and sour tom yum you know, but you might be pleased to make its acquaintance. It seemed like a Chinese chef was attempting to cook Thai food.
It had some heat, though not much sour, but the delicious broth was filled with tofu, a few shrimp, cilantro and Chinese tree ear mushrooms (considered very healthy and conducive to longevity). Of course there’s wonton soup on the menu but the wontons are filled with chicken and shrimp rather than pork. Less expected is miso soup or vegetable tofu soup with seaweed.
House garlic chicken is listed with a chili pepper beside it indicating a spicy dish, but the heat from Vietnamese chili paste was only discernible as a very last little kick. Kudos to the chef for not overcooking the delicate slices of chicken breast, which were very tender. Broccoli, sweet onions and carrots completed the mÃ©lange. The sauce was not a typical Chinese sauce in that it wasn’t thickened, which we liked; however, it was almost too delicate for a dish called garlic chicken as it had only a whisper of garlic.
They do offer the ever popular crispy orange chicken but also teriyaki chicken cooked in olive oil with steamed broccoli or chicken with mango and asparagus.
Korean barbecue beef is another example of a Chinese interpretation of a dish from another Asian cuisine. It didn’t have the pungent sauce or the barbecued flavor of typical Korean barbecue. It was tasty and tender but pan-fried with a Chinese style brown sauce. The issue for us was one of expectation rather than execution; good, but misleading in its moniker.
Our favorite dish was the most expensive on the menu and yet another instance of being surprised by what we got.
“Seafood delight in curry" was a delicious combination of wild jumbo shrimp, meaty tender scallops, delicate fish filet, sweet onions and bell peppers in an excellent sauce that was almost a broth.
The subtle flavors came from the juices of the seafood mixed with gentle seasonings but we only knew there was curry in it because it said so on the menu. It was still a good value in that the very fresh seafood was present in abundance. More classic seafood entrÃ©es include: shrimp in lobster sauce, fish filet with black bean sauce or kung pao scallops and shrimp.
Our least favorite was the pad Thai, a dish with which we are all familiar. It was seriously under-sauced and under-seasoned (except for a bit of heat) even though it had plenty of shrimp, chicken and egg. The sprouts were in short supply as were the ground nuts. Save this one for your favorite Thai restaurant.
They have a special menu category called Triple that includes chicken, shrimp and beef together in your choice of five different preparations. For example, “happy family" is with mixed vegetables and brown sauce.
Chinese sautÃ©ed vegetables are almost always cooked well but often suffer from too much oil. Everything on the menu here however, uses the minimum of healthy oil without suffering any loss of flavor. The sautÃ©ed green beans were a delight, nicely seasoned with a little touch of brown from the wok, they couldn’t have been better. All the vegetable dishes can be turned into an entrÃ©e by adding tofu, meat, fish or shrimp. Three special vegetarian entrÃ©es are featured with imitation chicken or beef.
We welcome Peony to Laguna Beach. It’s great to get Chinese food delivered again, especially when it’s more in tune with our healthier modern sensibility. They also cater with medium (6 to 8) or large (10 to 12) portions of most items on their menu. Their chef will take special requests as well as adapting dishes for food allergies or dietary restrictions.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.