The modern pan-Asian restaurant is almost as trendy these days as the tapas lounge. From corporate success stories like P.F. Chang’s to the new, locally funded, Asian inspired noodle bars and dim sum restaurants opening all across the Triangle, there is a new appreciation for Asian food that is both serious in terms of cuisine and fun in terms of style.

In the space of a few weeks, three restaurants with modern decor and a range of Asian dishes have or are about to open–Grasshopper and Mount Fuji (see next week’s Now Serving) in Durham, and Jujube in Chapel Hill. But before any of these places opened, a couple of restaurants set the stage, proving that the Triangle was ready for Asian food to be treated with more respect than the buffet can offer. One was Chapel Hill’s Lantern. The other was The Duck & Dumpling in Raleigh.

The Duck & Dumpling has been open for three years, and in that time it has gained a loyal following, especially for its amazing dumplings that are made by hand every day by the restaurant’s chef and owner, David Mao. It is one of only a handful of higher end restaurants in downtown Raleigh, and it’s a favorite spot for business lunches, which helped to fuel the dinner crowds. People would come in for lunch and be so impressed that they returned for dinner. It is surprising that there aren’t more restaurants in downtown Raleigh, but until recently the pretty squares and blocks that face them were known to be dead at night. It was considered a strictly 9-5 part of town. The Duck & Dumpling is one of the places that is helping to change that.

David Mao was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents and grew up in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, cooking in his parent’s Chinese restaurant. His menu at The Duck & Dumpling is largely an exploration of the two cuisines he grew up with–Chinese and Vietnamese. In 1966, Mao met an American officer whom he kept in touch with until 1972, when the officer sponsored Mao to come to North Carolina. He started working his way up in various kitchens, and over the years he has worked in many restaurants that Raleighites might recognize–the Far East Restaurant, Mandarin House in Cameron Village, the Great Mall of China on Fayetteville Street (before there was an actual mall there), and most recently, Mao was the chef at Abacus just up the block from Duck & Dumpling where Caffe Luna now is.

In his 33 years in North Carolina, Mao has seen the taste of his customers evolve, and Duck & Dumpling is a product of that. The dining room is modern with plush banquettes and red, black and frosted glass elements that are both high design and welcoming at the same time. The menu is a mix of updated Chinese classics like moo shoo duck and Mao’s own creations like poached sea scallops with oyster ginger sauce reduction. Mao knows he couldn’t have opened a restaurant like this 30 years ago. He is very conscious of the fact that the point of a restaurant is to please customers, not to educate them, and he speaks of the attitude at some restaurants he has worked for in the past. “They said they were ahead of their time. But maybe it was arrogance,” he says quietly.

He is also wary of expanding too rapidly. “People ask me to do things in North Raleigh and Durham, but running a restaurant is very difficult,” he says. “If you can only be in one restaurant at a time, you can only expect it to be what you want it to be while you are there. Even one restaurant, it is difficult. If your waiters ignore customers, the customers will go very quickly. You have to be there to stop that kind of thing.” For now, he is happy to have one restaurant that feels like his own creation, and he wants to make sure it doesn’t lose that feeling.

When I asked Mao to do a $20 dinner recipe, he decided on kung pao shrimp, a dish that is on both the lunch and dinner menu at Duck & Dumpling. It is a great example of what the restaurant does so well. Mao takes a dish that has been overdone for years in Chinese fast food restaurants, something that most Americans have come to know as a dish made with corn syrup and MSG, and reworked it to be both traditional and modern, using simple ingredients, traditional cooking techniques, and adding one or two modern touches. As with all the $20 dinner recipes I’ve printed in the past, I’ve left the sauces and oils out of the food cost, and although there may be one or two things in this recipe that you don’t already have in your cupboard, the meal comes in at well under $20, so you should still be able to pull this one off for $20 even if you have to go out and buy some oyster sauce.

Duck & Dumpling Kung Pao Shrimp

1/3 cup soy sauce

1/8 cup sherry

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tbsp. oyster sauce

2 slices of quarter-inch-thick fresh ginger ($.10)

1 whole star anise ($.15)

4 cloves garlic ($.25)

1/4 orange ($.50)

1/2 lemon ($.50)

4 scallions, chopped ($1.29 a bunch)

1/2 small onion, chopped ($.50)

1 celery stick, chopped into 1-inch long pieces ($.50)

Additional Ingredients
3/4 pound shrimp, tail on, deveined and peeled ($7.50)

1 clove minced garlic

8 dried small red chili peppers ($.30)

1 yellow pepper, diced in cubes ($2.00)

2 scallions, chopped

2 tbsp. canola oil

1 tsp. sesame oil

1/4 cup dry roasted peanuts ($1.00)

1/4 tsp. hot chili oil

1/4 pound haricot verts ($2.00)

2 tsp. corn starch

1 tbsp. water

In a small saucepan, heat soy and sherry. Add all the other sauce ingredients and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and discard vegetables, and set aside. In a large sauteé pan or wok, heat canola oil and minced garlic over high heat. Add shrimp, stir, and add the sauce. Stir for one minute to coat the shrimp. Dilute cornstarch with water and add to the pan to thicken sauce. Add yellow pepper, chili peppers, sesame oil, scallions and chili oil. In a pot of boiling water, blanch haricot verts for 15 seconds, drain, and place on two plates. Top with kung pao shrimp.

Serve with half cup of steamed white rice ($1.00).

Total cost: $17.59