While I'm in back inspecting the aquariums, men in black suits bring out a plastic bag of tiny, wriggling prawns to show my tablemates our future appetizer. The shrimp pass muster with my honored guest, Oakland-born author and tour guide Shirley Fong-Torres, and are whisked back to the kitchen for dispatching. When I return, the I'm-still-game smiles plastered on the faces of our companions are just beginning to fade.
I've invited Shirley to help me judge the merits of Oakland's Legendary Palace, which opened at the corner of Franklin and 7th streets in late November and is looking to become the swankiest spot in Chinatown. The Hong Kong-style dim sum parlor and seafood restaurant is owned by the Phung family, which also owns Economy Chop Suey around the corner. According to daughter Linda, the family also ran a large dim sum place in Houston for a number of years. They've hired two chefs -- one from eastern China, one from western China -- to oversee dim sum, and a third China-born chef to run the dinner kitchen.
Hong Kong style translates into a lot of shiny things, from the green and red neon stripes around the restaurant's exterior to the purple and white umbrella-shaped crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling -- and a constant swirl of waiters. Men in colored suits, each color apparently indicating the wearer's rank, stop at our table throughout the meal to woo Shirley, whom they've pegged as the alpha diner. Though it's disconcerting to receive so much attention, the servers are not at all stuffy, and they joke with us in English and Chinese.
Cantonese-style seafood, understandably, dominates both the menu and the only-in-Chinese specials card that Shirley receives. The menu contains sections for fish, scallops, oysters, clams, sea cucumbers, and frogs -- along with poultry, pork, and beef. You'll find a number of yawn-worthy Chinese-American standards in the latter sections, but the seafood menu and Cantonese hot pots look great.
If you're willing to plunk down a little extra cash, make the live-seafood aquariums at the back the centerpiece of your meal. Like the Italians, the Cantonese are experts at doing very little in order to bring out the best of the freshest of ingredients. It's Dungeness crab season, but there are four other kinds of crabs in the aquariums, including an Australian jumping crab I've never heard of. I add up the prices of the other entrées in my head and decide that we can afford a pound-size crab -- $28. Ten minutes later, we're allowed to say goodbye to the hairy, menacing creature when it's hauled to the table in a plastic bucket.
The prawns return to us pink and steamed, accompanied by a soy rice-wine dipping sauce flecked with chiles and scallions. We peel away the warm, soft shells, dip the tails in the sauce, and suck them out of the heads. They're exquisite, pulled from the steamer not a second too late. And our crab, which arrives last, is also a work of art. The steamed crab has been chopped into sections, cracked and arrayed out on the platter like a diagram of itself. A delicate, brothy garlic sauce is poured on top, and it's all that the meaty, sweet crustacean needs. When the bill arrives, however, I learn that it weighed three and a half pounds, making it one of the most expensive dishes I've ever ordered.
The nonseafood entrées, unfortunately, don't fare so well. A roasted chicken, plump and mahogany, is showered with deep-fried garlic chips. The crisp, papery skin encasing the chicken's moist flesh is beautifully rendered. But the bamboo pith, Chinese broccoli, and baby bok choy come in a bland, watery chicken-broth sauce. The French-style oxtail hot pot could have been braised for a while longer; the chefs haven't trimmed all the fat from the oxtail, so it's hard to gracefully pick the meat off the bones. What meat we scavenge, though, has rich flavor. A hint of sugar in the sauce must come from a little French wine.
The hovering waitstaff has a thing for fresh plates that first delights and then annoys us. Our plates are replaced every fifteen minutes at first, whisking away shrimp shells and chicken bones. But by the end of the meal the waiters have picked up the pace, coming after every two bites. The $80 crab has made us superstars with the servers -- until our popularity is eclipsed by a table of twenty ordering what must have been a $1,000 banquet, commencing with a barbecued suckling pig presented whole at the table with flashing red lights for its eyes. We all stand up to get a better glance.
I return the next Saturday at noon to try Legendary Palace's dim sum and see how I fare without Shirley to attract crowds of adoring waiters. It seems all of Chinatown has turned up to see how the new place is faring: The hostess gives us number 62 as she's calling out numbers in the low twenties. After forty minutes, we're led to an immense upstairs dining room -- at least three times bigger than the downstairs one.
Thus begins our quest for food. It takes close to ninety minutes to fill up on dim sum, a personal record since I'm usually stuffed after fifteen minutes. The carts slowly trickle from the kitchen and weave their way down the narrow aisles, dodging small children and signaling hands. There's some order to the chaos, but the staff is obviously still finding its rhythm. All of the servers are friendly, and once we manage to flag down a captain, we place a few special orders and are quickly obliged.
It's too much work for dim sum that turns out to be merely good. At $18 a person, Legendary Palace's dim sum is about as expensive as its rival across the street. The highlights? Translucent crown-shaped dumplings filled with shrimp, imitation crab, and crunchy nuggets of water chestnut. Squares of sticky rice studded with dried shrimp and wrapped sushi-style in nori. Baked cha siu bao, brushed with a sweet glaze and filled with tender, not-too-sweet barbecued pork. Clear tapioca starch half-moons with a crunchy mix of shredded black fungus, carrots, and tofu.
The complaints? Steamed tofu-skin rolls stuffed with black mushrooms and bamboo shoots are steamed in a tasteless broth. The Chinese broccoli (with oyster sauce) was too raw. The skin on the soy-roasted duck had been fried to a crackly crust, but so much fat had been left on the meat and skin that we didn't want to eat it. Most importantly, too many items were served cold. The fried wontons and comet-shaped shrimp balls turned greasy at room temperature, and the custard in the baked buns with crackly sugar topping, so heavenly when molten, lost much of its charm after setting.
There's much to like at Legendary Palace: The cooks' remarkable skill with fresh seafood is worth the money whether you're ordering wisely or not. But it's clearly going to take more time -- and organization -- for Legendary Palace to give Restaurant Peony a real run for its money.
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