Our neighbors at the adjacent table are a foursome of college-aged women who are clearly enjoying a girls’ night out. In a nearby corner, a group of high schoolers who may or may not be of driving age celebrate a birthday while, across the room, a couple, keeping a respectful distance from their daughter and obviously delighted by her delight, wait for the right moment to surprise her with a gift. Between those poles is a house packed with an unusually diverse, unusually convivial group of diners. Merely sitting among them all is fun.
Rice’s stylish decor features creative lighting such as
Welcome to Rice, a lively little surprise of a place on a commercial strip with no shortage of good Asian restaurants. It has obviously won its fair share of fans, partly through good, inexpensive food, partly through some very cool design. Wavy white panels on the ceiling reflect the violet of red neon lights at the hostess stand and the blue neon of the knee area under the sushi bar. Large recesses in the panels hide lamps that shine through clusters of clear crystals that hang like a sparkling frozen rain. The contemporary elements contrast with dark wooden tables, earthy tiles on the walls and floor, and two walls of large windows that provide a striking contrast between the light within and the twilight without.
Truth be told, I’d passed by Rice many times without giving it half a thought. When the original opened in Dover a few years ago, I scoffed at the name as too bland to entice. But driving by the 2½-year-old Rice just off Kirkwood Highway during the so-called magic hour of light, I caught a glimpse of the interior. Who would go to the trouble of creating so beautiful a place only to serve boring food? One visit proved my first presumption wrong.
Rice walks the many lines of Asian cuisine, from Japanese to Thai to the Americanized Cantonese we grew up on. The list of soups includes traditional fare such as miso, wonton and egg drop. Appetizers range from egg rolls to seaweed salads and items from the sushi bar. The selection of entrées encompasses classics such as General Tso’s chicken, pepper steak and orange beef. A bowl of rice and noodle dishes includes various lo meins. Japan is further represented by several tempuras and teriyakis.
At prime time on a Friday, we happily waited 15 minutes for a table. Once seated, we made a scattershot order to relieve our harried-but-cheerful server, who could bring the food in the order it was prepared, without the need to time her tickets to the kitchen and sushi bar. We started with a sampler of appetizers that included fried calamari, shumai and crab Rangoon with soy, duck, and sweet-and-sour sauces. The large rings of calamari were too heavily battered for my taste, and the triangles of Rangoon, though flavorful with scallion, were more cream cheese than crab. The pillows of shumai, however, were among the best I’ve tasted in a local restaurant.
From left: The Wendy Roll features steamed shrimp, kani and mango topped with lobster salad and roe; scallop lollipops.//Jim Coarse
We also enjoyed a generously portioned avocado salad: half a fruit sliced and fanned across a bed of lettuce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The standout starter by far, however, was the hot-and-sour soup—a cup of hearty, vinegar-tinged pork broth rich with swirls of egg, ribbons of cabbage, cubes of bean curd and flakes of chili pepper. It was a far cry from the corn starch-choked versions commonly served elsewhere.
The large menu of special sushi rolls forced difficult choices. We selected two. The Riverside Roll of scallop tempura and avocado was a spicy treat topped with shrimp, thin slices of jalapeño, crispy flakes and pearly black roe that provided a pleasing pop to each bite. The Romantic Roll of yellowtail and avocado was wrapped with white tuna and spicy tuna with a remoulade-like sauce.
Seafood Cantonese-style with pan-fried noodles; jalapeño pepper shrimp are seasoned with jalapeños and bell peppers.//Jim Coarse
We continued with a standard—chicken with broccoli in white sauce—which, again, stands out from versions served elsewhere. Slices of remarkably tender chicken breast harmonized with al dente broccoli crowns and a silky sauce seasoned with garlic and herbs. It was simple and perfect.
Pad Thai chicken with basil was just as delicious. I can’t say whether most local restaurants go to the trouble of creating so complex a dish from scratch. I can say the pad Thai at Rice was delicious, with toothsome rice noodles, crispy bean sprouts and the wonderful balance of smoky oil, salty fish sauce and hint of sweet fruit that makes good pad Thai so intriguing.
With so many good pan-Asian restaurants in so many places, it might seem barely worth leaving the neighborhood to try another. I’d suggest that Rice—with its contemporary design, inexpensive, good, straightforward food, and high-spirited patrons—is worth an adventure.
2015 Limestone Road, Wilmington • 999-7423
Prices: appetizers, $2–$12; soups and salads, $3–$7; sushi and sashimi, $4–$22; entrées, $10–$25
Recommended dishes: hot and sour soup, Riverfront Roll, pad Thai chicken and basil