By Debra Cornwell
Have you been to Hong Kong, lately? Me neither. However, after dining at 9 Dragons, I've taken a culinary journey worthy of an Emperor. . .or Empress. It is a real treat when a restaurant has a rich story--food, service, presentation, decor, and interesting traditions.
Located at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, 9 Dragons occupies the space formerly known as the Sundance Grille. From the congenial greeting, to the jasmine tea poured at the table, to the thoughtful packets of wet towels to cleanse the hands of diners who have been gaming, 9 Dragons sets the stage for a memorable meal.
Manager Kin Tsoi started his cooking career 30 years ago in Hong Kong. To clinch the job as manager at 9 Dragons, he had to pass an exacting food competition-like audition by preparing 12 dishes in an hour for nearly 20 executives. His grace under pressure prevailed, and Kin has gone on to create an authentic and extensive menu for 9 Dragons. He then assembled the team that produces these Hong Kong delights. Executive Sous Chef at Hollywood Casino, Christian Evans says, "Kin trained his carefully selected staff in six weeks and is the primary communicator for his team members who mostly speak Chinese. Everyone, including servers, had to pass a test on the ingredients."
Notably, the menu is written in English with Chinese and Vietnamese translations on the sidebar. 9 Dragons is no strip mall Chinese take out. Like all Hollywood Casino food, the elevated cuisine comes from a dedicated kitchen and everything, down to the hoisin sauce, is made from scratch.
Evans notes that, "The restaurant is separate from the gaming environment. Tucked in the back corner, every effort has been made to create a quiet, relaxing atmosphere" Soothing music plays and a few discreet, well-placed flat screen televisions allow patrons to keep an eye on sports or news. In Feng Shui, water is associated with prosperity and luck. Water, like energy, needs to flow so a lovely waterfall feature graces the wall near the restaurant entrance.
The interior incorporates the typical black and red associated with Chinese restaurants, but the sleek lines of the decor are complemented by textured fabrics like burnt-cut velvet and are accented by colors of putty and bronze.
We started our dinner with the most mouth-watering sushi and sashimi- -eel, yellow tail, white tail, salmon, shrimp, and the spectacular Dragon Roll. Although the words are often used interchangeably, sushi and sashimi are distinctly different. Sashimi is very fresh raw fish that is sliced into thin pieces. Sushi is a dish made with vinegared rice and can contain raw fish but can also include cooked meat like shrimp or no seafood at all such as a cucumber roll. The sashimi and sushi we tasted were of the freshest highest quality with a chilled silky texture and a delicate luscious flavor. Skillfully prepared, the Dragon Roll is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Although a Japanese delicacy, sushi and sashimi of this caliber is at home on the 9 Dragons menu.
Another popular appetizer is a shrimp and crab lovers delight. The golden snow crab claws with shrimp are prepared in panko--Japanese bread crumbs--and served with sesame oil. Ever so bold, I felt like a Food Channel chef when I tasted the jellyfish salad.
Chilled with scallions and an herbed soy sauce, the painstaking preparation includes briefly boiling the jellyfish then rinsing the free-swimming marine animal for three hours. The julienned jellyfish is dressed with vinegar, soy sauce and ginger. The dish has a gelatinous crunch with a sweet tang from the sauce. I wonder if there is such a thing as a peanut butter and jellyfish sandwich?
From the "BBQ" section of the menu, I ordered Peking Duck. The divinely seasoned and roasted duck is served in properly cut slices. My expert server, Hoi Chan, explained and demonstrated the traditional way to enjoy the dish--pick up a slice of duck with your chopsticks, dip it into the house made hoisin sauce, place the meat on a steamed bun, garnish with scallions, fold the bread over the meat, and nibble away. Hugely popular, the restaurant sells about 20 Peking Ducks a day. I savored and lingered over each bite appreciating the magnificence of this dish.
Roasted Pig Belly is another standout from the "BBQ" menu. It's presented golden, crispy, and succulent with another cooked-for-hours house made sauce--sweet bean. Like the duck, the pork belly is rich, juicy, and cooked to perfection.
Hunan Crispy Whole Fish is a presentation delight. The whole Rockfish is coated in a water chestnut powder, crispy fried, and served head and tail on like it swam onto the plate. The technique preserves both the firmness and delicate flavor of the fish.
The wok-seared sirloin is another crowd pleaser. WIth asparagus, peppers, onions and chef's sauce, the vegetables are perfectly crunchy and the beef is tender and juicy. The kitchen has also mastered the noodle, whether wide rice noodles, drunken chicken noodles, or pan-fried noodles in the form of crisp vermicelli. Diners can pick a noodle then add beef, chicken, seafood, pork, or vegetable.
Perhaps the most popular dish at the restaurant is the 9 Dragons seafood fried rice. With plentiful shrimp and scallops and huge pieces of King crab, the fantastic dish was a favorite at our table.
Even though I rarely drink alcohol, the specialty cocktails on the menu tempted even me. The Dragon Eye would be an awesome signature drink at Halloween. Made with Plymouth gin and lychee nectar, the red libation features a lychee fruit at the bottom staring up at you like an eyeball. The always-fresh fruit lends a perfumed sweetness to the drink. The Drunken Dragon is a perfect homage to the orchards of the Eastern Panhandle.
With Grey Goose le Poire, Peach Schnapps, and apple juice, this sumptuous sipper reminded me of spring in the Blue Ridge. The most memorable cocktail was the Magic Dragon. A spectacular shade of blue-tinged lavender, this drink is a masterful mix of Absolut vodka, blue curacao, lychee nectar, and violet extract. Beautiful to behold and better to drink, this is what purple would taste like if it was a flavor.
A little research reveals why 9 Dragons is a culturally significant name for the restaurant. Even to the casual observer, it is obvious that the dragon figures prominently as a cultural icon in China and Vietnam. The earliest Chinese Emperors were thought to be related to Long, the Chinese Dragon.
Legend says that when the Emperors died, they were immortalized as dragons, hence, the attribution of the dragon as a symbol of Imperial power.
As the symbol for many Chinese dynasties, the dragon is incorporated into the Dragon Throne, on ancient flags, on tombs, and in palaces and gardens. Considered powerful, the dragon symbolizes good luck, strength, and excellence and is still used in daily language to compliment someone who is "like a dragon." The dragon also symbolizes dominion over water including rain, typhoons, and floods.
In the Chinese Zodiac, the dragon is one of the symbols used to describe personality traits. Curiously, more births supposedly occur in dragon years. I'm guessing it is in order to harness the power of the dragon for their children.
A popular Chinese story is the Nine Offspring of the Dragon. Nine, as the largest possible single digit, is considered special, and dragons are noted in terms of nine attributes such as 117 scales, 9x13; 81 Yang, 9x9; 36 Yin, 9x4. As a result, nine is reserved for the Emperor who wore nine dragons on his robe.
So there is the answer--9 Dragons, a symbol of strength, good character, and good fortune, serves cuisine fit for an Emperor and the lucky guests of Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and Slots. Tsoi says 9 Dragons quickly developed a regular following since its opening in August 2012, and the customer reviews have been consistently outstanding. The accolades are well-deserved.