Duck Tongues in Abalone Sauce
Summer Palace, Hong Kong
An impromptu pay-back lunch found a friend and me deliberating on a convenient, yet pleasing place for a quick lunch on my last day in Hong Kong.
Lung King Heen, where I had a pretty successful meal the week before, was fully booked. And Yan Toh Heen, one of my friend’s favorite dim sum houses, was too far for him to travel on a lunch break.
Highly seasonal hairy crabs, he said, were available at Summer Palace, the two Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant at the Island Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong, near his office. And, indeed, the website stated that they would be available from September 1 through the end of October.
Unfortunately, when I arrived, there were no hairy crabs. The season, I was told, was not to commence until the end of September. They quickly amended their website.
So, we settled on an assortment of dim sum, and ordered a couple of dishes from their main menu.
As far as large Chinese restaurants go, Summer Palace is quite beautiful, I must say. Not to over-generalize, but places that turn a high volume tend not to focus so much on aesthetics and the trappings. Not so in this case.
The overall color scheme here is lacquer, red, and gold on a field of plush blue carpet. Not atypical at all in this cultural context, the decor did seem to have an extra glow and gloss. The doors to the restaurant, for example – a floor-to-ceiling, gold-plated network of carved branches crowded with Dogwood blossoms – was stunning.
I should make it clear that Summer Palace is no palace. Compared to the behemoth, multi-level restaurants in the city (and the big Chinese metropolises), it’s a small venue by Chinese standards. The tiered dining room is populated with about three to four dozen tables of various shapes and sizes encircling a faux gazebo of sorts. Wide avenues run between them. A handful of private party rooms skirt the edges.
By Western standards, it’s a sizable room, especially so for a Michelin 2-star (but really, there is something terribly exceptional about Chinese restaurants and the Michelin rating, as my friend and I discussed).
The restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived at noon. By half-past that hour, the place was at least three-quarters full.
Per the usual custom, an assortment of pickled vegetables arrived along with a dish of chili paste. In this case, the pickled vegetables appeared to be dices of daikon and carrots tossed with sesame seeds. I’m not convinced, however, that it was daikon, as they were slightly sweet and lacked that mustard-like shot in the crunch, suggesting that it was actually jicama. I wasn’t really paying attention.
The dim sum here are surely of the fancier kind. It runs on the pricey side as well. We ordered the following dishes, which arrived in quick succession (CLICK HERE to see all of the dishes from this meal):
Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns
(HK$ 48 for 3 pieces)
Steamed Pork Dumplings with Crab Coral
(HK$ 60 for 4 pieces)
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings with Angel Loofah and Conpoy
(HK$48 for 3 pieces)
Steamed Fresh Shrimp Dumplings
(HK$60 for 4 pieces)
Pan-Fried Rice Rolls
With dried shrimp and X.O. sauce. (HK$ 65)
What sets Summer Palace’s dim sum apart from your garden variety dim sum house is the attention to the craftsmanship and ingredients. Everything here is done with textbook precision.
The steamed buns were fluffy and light, harbouring a more-saucy-than-meaty char sui filling. I particularly appreciated that these were reasonably sized (I hate it when steamed buns come out the size of a grapefruit. I mean, that’s a total killjoy for a meal that’s premised on small-bite grazing.)
The dumplings, as well, were all very good.
“Steamed Pork Dumplings with Crab Coral,” otherwise known as sui mai, were much more shrimp than pork (probably pork fat mixed with mixed shrimp; the pork only contributing moisture and flavor). They were plump and had a very good bounce, something I rarely find in a sui mai. The crab coral was negligible, simply a garnish.
The skin on shrimp dumpling is always a tricky thing: if you eat them too quickly, you’ll burn your mouth. Wait just a few seconds too many, and they become a sticky, mastic mess. I’m not convinced that there’s a happy median.
The wrappers on the “Steamed Shrimp Dumplings with Angel Loofah and Conpoy” became a sticky mess after a few seconds. They really need to be eaten right away. The filling, however, was quite good – a mix of shrimp and conpoy. I have no clue where or what the loofah was in these dumplings. We guessed that it must have been the haze of green that glowed through the wrapper.
The green-tinted wrappers (not sure what they used to tint them green) used for the “Steamed Fresh Shrimp Dumplings” held up a bit better than the wrappers on the “Steamed Shrimp Dumplings with Angel Loofah and Conpoy.” The shrimp inside were plump and properly steamed.
The “Pan-Fried Rice Rolls” were awesome.
I never get anything this good in the U.S. These tightly rolled pieces of rice noodles (tsong fun) had been pan-fried such that the outside sported a deliciously crunchy crust. The insides were soft and just a touch sticky, as they should be. What amazed me is that for the duration of our meal, they didn’t turn cold, hard, or gummy. Neither did the pan-fried crust go limp. Slicked with a touch of X.O. sauce, it was like a carb-fiend’s dream.
And the “Duck Tongues Glazed with Abalone Sauce“, a rare treat. were nicely done as well. Glazed in a rich abalone sauce, the gelatinous skin-like meat slipped right off of the feather bones of these nobby rods.
After the dim sum had been cleared, the one large dish we ordered – “Velvet Pioppino Mushrooms with Squid”
(HK$148) – from the “Chef’s Recommends” menu, arrived.
The velvet pioppino (a.k.a. hon shimeji) mushrooms were sauteed with thin slices of squid. What is amazing is that the squid was so tender that, texture-wise, it blended in seamlessly with the slippery, silky mushrooms. This was a display of technical brilliance, both in concept and execution.
Flavor-wise, this was a rather one-dimensional plate. But I can’t blame the chef for not injecting more flavor as the delicate flavor of the pioppini was highlighted. I also enjoyed the thick slices of ginger that had been stir-fried with the mushrooms. They were so fresh and tender that they had the texture of water chestnuts.
Curiosity found us ordering just one more dim sum item for sport. Beautifully wrapped, sadly, the “Steamed Diced Lobster Dumplings,” with water chestnuts and Chinese celery (HK$48 for 2 pieces) weren’t particularly memorable otherwise.
We joked that every Cantonese restaurant in the city promotes their “Mango Soup and Sago Cream” as a house specialty. It was no different here.
From a list of about a dozen sweets, the “Mango and Pomelo Soup with Sago Cream” (HK$50) was the only one that Summer Palace endorsed as being particularly special.
Predictably, this one was particularly special only in the sense that it was well-made and served in a gold-trimmed crystal bowl. I only had a spoonful.
I rarely get durian in the States – it’s never fresh. So, I was delighted to see “Durian Pudding” (HK$50) on the menu. I had to get it.
A gelatinized pudding served chilled with a maraschino cherry meteor cratered on top for a dramatic, if not comic presentation, it boasted an unapologetically bold durian flavor. It scratched my durian itch beautifully.
I believe my proper Singaporean friend’s descriptor for the “Fried Taro Stuffed with Chocolate” (HK$48) was “WRONG.” I thought he was being a little prejudiced. I couldn’t let this one go untested.
Think dim sum fried taro balls – the ones with the impossibly lacy and flaky shell with a warm, purplish, mashed taro and pork interior – sans pork and a chocolate ganache core.
I think the concept was fine. But the execution was poor. The chocolate ganache filling had clearly burned in the frying process; it had curdled, and seized (is that like stop, drop, and roll?) into a thick, lumpy paste. The ethereally lacy and flaky crust and the taro part of these balls was good, however. I prefer the savory, porcine version better. But it wasn’t on offer on their regular dim sum menu.
It’s a shame that I couldn’t have experienced more of Summer Palace’s main fare – a dim sum lunch is hardly a fair basis on which to evaluate this restaurant’s potential. But wanting to keep things relatively light, dim sum was the only sensible thing to do. Next time, I’ll have to return nearer to the Autumn Moon Festival, when I can have my hairy crabs and snakes.
Our service at Summer Palace was probably the most attentive and polished of all of the higher-end restaurants I visited on this trip. The clientele here seemed to be mostly suits and foreigners (probably the only two species who would be willing to meet these prices at lunch), not surprising given the restaurant’s situation in a luxury hotel next to financial centers.
Oh, and one last note: my gwailo double Perrier order (330ml each) landed me with a HK$120 (about US$18) tariff. My friend and I choked, just a little, when we saw that on the tab.
Island Shangri-la Hotel
Supreme Court Road
Central, Hong Kong