The duck comes to the table like royalty carried on a sedan. The tray is placed tableside, and the server pours a caramel-colored sauce, as glossy as a new Ferrari, over the deboned fowl. “Do you want to take a picture before I carve it?” he asks, ever devoted to your whims. Of course you do. It seems almost disrespectful of this stately thing, which you had to order at least 48 hours in advance and costs $68, not to preserve its memory.
But once you bite in, instinct takes over. What was once something like an esteemed guest at your table is a delectable dinner. The duck is steamed with a center of sticky rice inside. In the process, the rice absorbs the juices not only of the duck, but also of cubes of ham, tender chestnuts, salty egg yolk and briny shrimp and dried scallops. The dish was designed for imperial dining during the Han dynasty. And as visceral an experience as it is dipping the duck into its golden sauce and tearing into the supple flesh, you can’t help but feel like royalty.
Whether you’re talking about the sauce or the appropriately palatial dining rooms, “golden” is the operative word at Han Palace. It’s a sequel to owner Chris Zhu’s Rockville, Maryland, restaurant, China Garden, and she pulled out all the stops to make her new eatery a gilded success. Thanks to stellar service and Cantonese food that’s hard to find elsewhere in NoVA, it often hits those heights, but the kitchen, led by executive chef Wei Liu and dim sum chef David Xue, is too inconsistent to be considered a five-star affair just yet.
This may be in part due to the pressures of the pandemic. Zhu says that while the buzz for the restaurant was fresh when it opened in September, it was consistently busy. Now, “It is a little bit slower,” she admits, with typical dim sum gathering times of Saturday and Sunday afternoons still boasting the highest traffic for the cart-free, mostly made-to-order small plates. Losing outdoor dining to winter weather has also made matters more difficult. The varying traffic means that food comes out fast, hot and fresh on the weekends but with some blips on a Tuesday night when my party was one of only three at the restaurant.
On a snowy night, the modern main dining room with its peacock-decorated ceiling was a delicious place to warm up. Han Palace is not an old-fashioned, chandelier-laden dim sum eatery. Zhu has taken great care to create a slick and modern but still welcoming feel. There’s always something to draw the eye, from a bird-covered mural to the matching plates that wait on the table ready to be filled.
The splendid surroundings can make stumbles even more of a bummer. Those included likably fatty, compellingly crisp roast pork that arrived at the table cold. Zhu says that the Peking duck, with skin that oozes poultry-flavored grease with each crunchy bite, is also intended to be served at room temperature, but it would have tasted so much better warm. The pancakes on the side appeared to be store-bought tortillas, the biggest disappointment across my mostly successful meals at Han Palace.
On that Tuesday night, it took forbiddingly long for some of the dim sum to get to my table. While jiggly-but-too-firm rabbit-shaped pudding arrived in seconds, I waited half an hour for the Almond Ball with Custard Yolk Heart. Was it worth it? It was hard to argue that it wasn’t, when I broke through the chewy, almond-crusted jacket to the sweet, molten center that melted in my mouth.
But on another visit, the Purple Gold Yolk Bun, an even lovelier dessert, came in short minutes after I requested it. That sweet is one of Xue’s signatures, a fluffy lavender-colored steamed bun filled with an oozy egg custard just sugary enough to register as dessert. The swabs of gold on top give the dish an ornate gravity it might not have otherwise, but even without it, I would probably want to order seconds.
On a busy Saturday afternoon, dim sum arrived at my table almost as soon as the thought of each dish entered my mind. Cha siu bao, perhaps the most prolific of dim sum dishes, is as pillowy as it should be at Han Palace, with a sanguine-looking center of red pork that’s forgivingly a touch less sweet than at many purveyors. Rice rolls, known as cheung fun, are thin-skinned and served in a sweet soy-based sauce. Steamed pork ribs could have been separated more carefully—I had a few that stuck together in meaty chunks—but the garlicky sauce made them dangerously easy to demolish.
Xue’s greatest savory creation, though, is his scallop dumpling. Dressed in a skirt of jade dumpling skin, the bivalves tower in a pile of juicy, perfectly seasoned lusciousness. Dipped in a sauce of the vinegar, soy and chile oil that wait at the table, they’re an ocean-flavored delight that stands up well to a hint of spice and acid.
It seems, as I write, that the quibbles quickly fade from my mind. What’s left is the impression of a restaurant that, while still finding its feet, is rising to join the best Chinese fare in the region. Whether it’s for a special occasion that warrants the pomp of a stuffed duck or just a craving for dumplings, Han Palace is worthy of a place on local diners’ lists of standbys. // 7900 Westpark Dr., McLean
Murals on both walls and ceilings depict colorful birds. Score a seat at a comfy booth to enjoy them.
Han-style stuffed duck, scallop dumplings, Purple Gold Yolk Buns
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Dim Sum: $3.95-8.95 Entrees: $7.95-$68
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior