Shrimp Bird's Nest with pea pods, mushrooms, baby corn and water chestnuts. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
One of the rewards of covering the restaurant scene is the occasional discovery of a restaurant that offers much more than expected.
Gim Ling is that surprise.
Disregard the humble exterior in a sparsely populated St. Clair Shores strip mall. Once inside, Gim Ling offers a stylish setting, courteous service, and what's more important, some of the most delicious Cantonese and Szechuan fare around.
Chef/proprietor Paul Yan, a native of Hong Kong who has 20 years experience in the kitchen, took over an existing restaurant four years ago and kept the name but otherwise transformed the place.
Such touches as artistic close-ups of cherry blossoms and water lilies on the pale butterscotch walls, and the shadow boxes containing small art pieces -- including a collection of clay tea pots that he hand-carried from a trip to mainland China -- give the room its distinctive look. He uncovered the windows, allowing light to flood in.
Yan didn't stop there. He refined the mostly Cantonese menu into what he calls "our modern interpretation of Chinese cuisine." He offers many familiar-sounding dishes, from egg drop soup and pot stickers to pepper steak and sweet and sour pork, but the fresh ingredients and lightly applied sauces lift them from the mundane.
Chinese vegetable, one of nine soups, is made-to-order, with still-crunchy vegetables and mushrooms in a clear broth. All it needs is a dash of pepper. Reach for the shaker, and realize it contains, not the expected black pepper, but the more subtle white, precisely the kind of touch that sets Gim Ling apart.
Plate presentation, while not fussy, shows an eye for beauty. Mango chicken arrives on a platter, with juicy, pristine slices of the bright orange fresh mango intermingled with curls of stir-fried white onion, a scattering of green pepper and pieces of white meat chicken breast tender enough to cut with a fork. A slightly sweet but not cloying sauce enhances the dish. It's every bit as delicious as it looks.
Sesame chicken, marinated and lightly breaded nuggets of chicken sparked with sesame seeds, has a completely different character, with a spiciness that sneaks up after a few bites. The accompanying steamed rice comes in its own small bowl, just right for those who like to use chopsticks.
There's certainly much to like, including a well-balanced hot and sour soup with a kick of heat; the plump, oil-free eggrolls filled with shredded chicken; the slightly smaller and more delicate spring rolls with a filling of finely chopped vegetables; and the classic shrimp with lobster sauce, one of several seafood dishes on a menu that is varied but well-edited as well as attractively presented on crisp paper. No laminated menus here.
Tables -- and they are more comfortable than the small booths because of the sturdy chairs -- are linen-covered and set with white china including the pots containing soy sauce, the salt and pepper shakers and the tea pots and cups, for a harmonious, noncommercial effect. Wonton chips brought to the tables with soups and appetizers are fresh, crisp and housemade.
Background music is acoustic and soothing, adding to the surprising atmosphere.
And to illustrate that it isn't just pleasant décor that draws people to Gim Ling, it does a thriving carry-out business.