For years, Long Island's Chinese restaurants have been, to be polite, in transition. Once you drop takeout joints, there are few purists left. Many traditional spots, including Pearl East, have added other Asian cuisines to their menus. And plenty of eateries have become extinct. What stays appealing about this Manhasset mainstay is its fresh look, comparatively restrained style and the fact that, while you can order fine sushi and satay, the kitchen's stars remain Chinese favorites. On a recent Sunday night, the waiting time for a reserved table approached an hour, the crowd mushroomed and, amid the disorganization, a maitresse d' asked whether "there's a full moon tonight." There wasn't. It was just the search for General Tso's chicken.
Pearl East's version of chicken Soong, minced and wrapped in a lettuce leaf, remains a winner. Likewise, the house's plump, Shanghai-style soup dumplings with pork and crab; the steamed, well-seasoned vegetable dim sum; and chile-spiked sesame noodles. The vegetarian hot-and-sour soup delivers clean, peppery flavor, not the usual medicinal shock. And, if you must cross borders, the miso soup with enoki mushrooms and the spicy Thai broth with shrimp and straw mushrooms also are very good. Pearl East excels with dishes that too many establishments either ruin or avoid. The Beijing duck stands out: a moist, tasty, one-course production, available in half or whole orders. That General Tso's chicken, more like private or corporal Tso's elsewhere, arrives deftly spiced and crisp - and preferable to the eatery's revered lemon chicken. So does tender, sweet-spicy orange beef. The big fish here is steamed sea bass with ginger and scallions, delicate and aromatic. Eggplant with garlic sauce and spicy-dry string beans go with any of these.
The tangy prawns in the "ying and yang" combo are much better than those sauced with Grand Marnier. Wonton soup, spring roll, Thai shrimp roll, pork pot stickers - routine. Chewy spareribs. Canned pineapple chunks.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Back to the future.