There's nothing inferior at R.C. Ching

October 01, 2006|by PHILIP McGULLET

We do not know when food presentation started becoming a big deal, with those crazy swirls of sauce spirographing across the plate and rosemary trees poking up out of the mashed potatoes.

In general, we can appreciate the concept, although too often presentation is to food what MTV videos are to music - a glitzy show to deflect attention from an inferior product.

Happily, there is nothing inferior about the food at R.C. Ching, an Oriental restaurant on Dual Highway in Hagerstown featuring Chinese cuisine and such Japanese favorites as sushi and seaweed salad.

So it's a pure bonus that the food arrives at the table fit for an art gallery. Its platters are jewels; you don't know whether to eat it or hang it on the wall.


Not being terribly well-versed in the subject ourselves, we brought along a sushi "ringer," who was capable of making competent judgments on the subject. The fact that he was greatly impressed can be taken as a meaningful endorsement.

The dining room, in what is probably best known to Hagerstonians as the former Holiday Inn, is elegant but comfortable and a cut above most Oriental restaurants. It has only hints of the ghosts of restaurants past, including a dazzling chandelier and what we believe might have once been a DJ booth.

The menu is a long one, and geared to suit a wide variety of tastes (among the appetizers, somehow "fried chicken wings" snuck into the mix).

We picked Chinese dumplings, shrimp tempura, miso soup and, although it wasn't listed, we asked for and received a seaweed salad.

The dumplings come fried like potstickers or steamed in the traditional form known as jiaozis. Plump pockets of dough stuffed with meat, they were somewhat plain, but came with a snappy sauce that livened things up considerably.

In fact, big bowls of sauce that accompanied just about everything were a special treat, along with the wonderfully fresh and juicy shaved ginger. Such attention to detail, is in itself, a forgotten art.

The tempura was what tempura should be, a light, crackling crust adhering to juicy shrimp. The miso soup was robust and complex, living up to its reputation, as the saying goes, of being 4,000 years of wisdom in a bowl.

Quite curious was the salad, which instead of the typical electric green, was red. The texture and flavor, though, were much the same, pleasantly crunchy and tangy.

The imbibers in the group took some time to sip on plum wine and saki as we ventured into the world of maki sushi. We had no idea what this meant, but the expert held our hand and explained that maki is the six-piece roll of sticky rice and filling surrounded by seaweed that typically comes to mind when the word sushi is mentioned. Gamely, we picked up the asparagus roll, yellow tail roll and, finally, the dragon roll. Contrary to its name, the dragon roll contains no dragon. Instead, the bulk of it is something almost as scary to Americans - eel.

Colorful, arty - the phrase "well-crafted" comes to mind - and served sliced in a slight crescent, it's a dream to look at, something that helps a novice sushiite get past the slither factor.

Even for traditional eaters, we do not believe it takes time to acquire a taste for cooked eel, the dense, smoky flavor was enjoyable from the start, contrasting nicely with cool and creamy slices of avocado.

One of our guests, a self-professed spicy tuna roll connoisseur, extolled the virtues of Ching's version of his favorite dish. Not overly spicy, not too bland, the roll's sauce blended with substantial chunks of tuna in delectable combination.

The two-piece nigiri sushi, seaweed-free stacks of rice and fresh fish - or, as ordered by our vegetarian guest, rice topped with sweet tofu skin - was lauded for its generous portions and hearty, though simple flavors.

R.C. Ching offers a variety of vegetarian options on both its sushi and dinner menus, and the General Tso's Tofu provided one of our fellow diners with a tangy, well-textured, meat-free alternative to the popular chicken dish.

We wanted to sample one of the more traditional Chinese dishes, and did, sort of. The Hunan lamb caught our eye, lamb not being something that finds its way onto most Chinese menus. It was delicious, well spiced, but not so much as to overpower the lamb.

Nothing on the menu (save for a whole Peking duck) will break the $20 barrier, and most dishes top out at $10 to $12, adding value to the experience. At R.C. Ching, that's a good price just to look at the food, much less eat it.

Philip McGullet is a pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

R.C. Ching: 4 stars(out of 5)

Food: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambience: 3 stars

Address: 908 Dual Highway, Hagerstown

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Phone: 301-766-9528

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