Chinese Food and Cake
The Weird and Wonderful Regent
The original Regent Bakery & Cafe in Redmond is such a favorite of software developers that its work is depicted in the video game Portal as a "reward cake." When you see Regent's cakes—the green-tea mousse one, for example, its fluffiness fenced in by a chocolate latticework, topped with high-gloss strawberries and grapes and kiwi—you can picture them on the screen. They are improbably lovely; they are pretty much already animated. You can imagine the guys staying up all night coding, then driving to the strip mall that houses the Eastside Regent, and there, sleep-deprived and semi-hysterical, deciding to have the cake for breakfast and also deciding that the cake—of course!—has to be in the game. Regent's cakes reward both the eyeballs and the sweet tooth with their pastel geometry, their layers of airy cream, their quivering jellied tops. They're CGI beautiful.
Regent opened in Redmond more than a decade ago, eventually adding a full Chinese menu so that the software developers wouldn't have to live on cake alone. Regent on Capitol Hill opened at the beginning of this year, and it is a slightly weird and entirely wonderful place. At its center—it's where Online Coffee Company used to blandly be, on the corner of 14th and Pine—is the bakery, with backlit plastic menus overhead, glowing display cases of cakes, shelves and shelves of pastries. In a dangerous arrangement, the pastries are self-serve; you get a tray and some tongs, and have your way with all of it.
Everything's baked on-site every day, from a creditable croissant (suitably flakey, slightly denser than a classic French one, with a brushing of sweet glaze on top) to a tasty barbecued pork bun (a pillowy number with filling that's less sugary than usual, even a little smoky). The fruit Danishes are as gorgeous as the cakes (and less assaultingly sweet), the egg tarts look like miniature suns, and you can get something piped full of coconut cream or a multipartite roll with pieces of hot dog poking out, like a whole herd of pigs in a blanket. And kouign-amann—the buttery, caramelized Breton version of a sticky bun, newly and rightfully popular stateside. Get the kouign-amann.
While the bakery looks like it belongs in a food court, nothing else does. The entryway houses an extremely sparkly contemporary chandelier, and to the left and the right of the bakery—separated mostly by a suspension of disbelief—are the wildly more upscale bar and restaurant. Glass panels hither and yon cycle slowly through electric blue, purple, green. Behind the glowing bottles on the bar, an abstract image of an icy drink changes color too, making the idea of a cocktail, coincidentally, start to seem very good to you. The dining area has banquettes and candles and marble-like tabletops. While the atmosphere's split personality is undeniably strange, Regent is equally comfortable by yourself at midnight (hallelujah, it's open late) with a book and a giant platter of chow fun, or at noon on Saturday with friends for Chinese brunch.
The big wide rice noodles of the beef chow fun ($8.95) are tender and slidey, and, like everything at Regent, they taste notably fresh. Even the pot-sticker wrappers—thin-style, more like gyoza—seem delicate to the bite, and the dumplings (six for $5.95) are pan-fried to a lacey brown and served with a vinegar-chili sauce with bits of bell pepper and green onion. If you want soy sauce at Regent, you have to ask, which can lead to surprising moments with the usual soy-sauce candidates in the Americanized Chinese canon: The fried rice ($11.95 for house special with chicken, barbecued pork, shrimp, and the "meat floss" pork sung) is so ungreasy as to be airy, and by the time you get the condiment you think you want, a large amount of it may already have been happily conveyed into your mouth. In the candied-meats department, the General Tso's ($10.95) thin coating stays admirably crispy around moist bites of chicken, while the sauce skews quite sweet; some might wish for more chili pepper, while others will be delighted that it tastes like it came from the bakery. You get a big heap of it, too, resting on a bed of emerald green, un-overcooked broccoli to combat the sugar.
Also fresh-tasting and delicious at Regent: bok choy ($9.95) with just a sheen of garlic sauce and bits of toasted garlic on top, carefully arranged in a verdant butterfly pattern; exactingly cooked prawns ($12.95) with tons of sweet onions in a savory lobster sauce (though without enough mushrooms, and zero advertised snow peas); duck rice cake ($11.95), a bed of rice vermicelli pan-fried to crispy on the bottom, topped with shredded duck meat and bell peppers and garlic and more. Even the salt-and-pepper calamari ($8.95) is unheavily battered, ungreasy, not a bit rubbery, and especially good. (One server—they are so nice here, in an unintrusive, efficient way—evinced extreme enthusiasm for the pork chops prepared in the same style, covered with bits of chili pepper, ginger, garlic, and green onion.) Even the ma pao tofu ($9.95) tastes light, with the tofu yielding silkily to the fork and the sauce.
Soon, probably, popular hours at Regent will mean long waits. But you can always get started with reward cake.