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Hong Kong Calling

The Imperial Palace serves Houston's classiest dim sum -- and then some

All points bulletin: Houstonians who care about Chinese food should put the Imperial Palace at the top of their restaurant rotation list. Midday trays and trolleys piled with the city's classiest dim sum are just part of the lure at this huge, well-mannered establishment in western suburbia's lively New Chinatown. More thrills kick in on the ambitious regular menu, where Chiu Chow cookery, a Cantonese subcuisine popular in contemporary Hong Kong, weaves through a repertoire teeming with exotic game dishes and notably fresh seafood.

Not everything is uniformly spectacular, but order right -- from a simple stew of Texas wild boar and mustard greens to a modern hybrid of shrimp with candied walnuts -- and you can assemble a meal to rival Uncle Tai's or Dong Ting in their long-gone heydays. After the oppressively sweet heat that holds local Hunan and Szechuan menus in thrall, the Imperial Palace is an oasis abloom with luxuriously differentiated tastes and textures.

The restaurant's young Vietnamese marketing whiz, Tony Vu, pegs the food as a "fusion of all the best Chinese cuisines," with a few European touches for glamour. While dishes in northern Peking style, eastern Shanghai style and western Szechuan style dot the menu, it is the richly varied cuisine of South China's Guangdong (Canton) province that predominates here. Imperial Palace's five owners -- four of them chefs -- are boyhood friends whose parents made the arduous trek from the Chiu Chow fishing region on Guangdong's easterly coast to the forbidden free zone of Hong Kong, now home to a significant Chiu Chow community. The five spent almost two decades toiling in Hong Kong restaurant kitchens before lucking into Houston jobs in l985; cooking at Fu Kee, Furama, the Grand Palace and the Golden Palace, they saved $150,000 toward a place of their own.

Last spring, they opened the vast, handsomely understated Imperial Palace beneath a looming HPD substation sign in Bellaire Boulevard's Diho Square shopping center. This spring, enter Tony Vu, a Kim Son and Atlanta Marriot alumnus who convinced them to set themselves apart from the local Chinese pack by emphasizing their Chiu Chow roots and serving wild game (a current vogue in Hong Kong, where deer, turtle and snake are prized for what the Chinese call "wild taste"). That shrewd bit of American-style packaging has borne provocative fruit: there are dishes here that are quite unlike anything else in town.

One of them is a New Zealand venison chop marinated in five-spice powder and scarce sweet black pepper imported from Vietnam; sauteed to a perfect, tender medium rare, subtly fragrant with star anise and clove, it puts most Houston deer preparations to shame. The mountain of puffy, pastel shrimp chips on top is a nutty flourish, but who cares when the al dente broccoli, scallion branches and small scarlet peppers underneath are so apt?

Instead of the goose Chiu Chow cooking is famous for, the Imperial Palace trades in duck and squab, plus little Georgia quail that make a splendid first course -- crisp-skinned and infused with a lovely, faintly sweet marinade, served with a dish of star-anise-scented salt and gossamer deep-fried spinach leaves the color of dark green jade. These quail are the restaurant's answer to a celebrated Chiu Chow dish, chicken with crisp spinach, and they are strikingly simple and good.

So is the Chiu Chow duck steeped in a delicate brew of rice wine, rum and Chinese spices before it's quick-roasted at high heat to seal in the juices. Pungent pickled greens set off the richness of the dark, rosy duck meat, with its fatty u-peel-it skin, in a blissfully elemental way. Even more satisfying are wild boar ribs in the form of a deceptively plain game ragout. Its rib meat practically melts apart in a well-balanced brown sauce; thick stalks of bitter Chinese mustard greens and tiny mystery ovals, sweet-sour and vividly red (hand-cut dried lychee, according to Vu), provide surprise. Eaten with rice, these ribs have a soulful quality made for the Texas palate.

Seafood is central to Chiu Chow cuisine, and the Imperial Palace treats it with unusual respect. The fresh-tasting hardshell crabs with ginger and onion are worth making a mess over. And the amazing prawns with walnuts (discreetly daubed with a "special sauce" that really is) are sensual dynamite. "I could eat these all night," moaned a friend as she chopsticked pearly coils of shrimp that had been plunged (unbattered and unbreaded) into hot oil and dove after crisply caramelized walnuts and salty wonton cracklings. I probed a waiter about the creamy, sweet-salty sauce. Instead of recoiling when he compared it to ranch dressing, I thought, "Is this a great country, or what?"

Not every dish seizes the imagination. Some are merely good: turtle soup with homestyle vegetables in a hot-sour broth, for instance, the farm-raised turtle meat stringy and vaguely alien. Or a Texas-meets-Hong-Kong wild-game appetizer of chewy, batter-fried alligator nuggets and slender spring rolls stuffed with rattlesnake morsels and earthy black mushrooms (dipped in red vinegar, these rolls are less gimmicky -- and more delicate -- than they sound). My steamed fish was swimming in a glass tank one minute, swimming in a platter of gingery, winy soy broth and scallion curls the next. I wish the farm-raised tilapia involved had more flavor, and that it had been steamed two minutes less, but there's no fresher fish in Houston.

The disappointments here tend to be dull rather than disastrous. Tentacled Asian prawns with a minced-shrimp stuffing looked splashy, but neither they nor the accompanying shelled shrimp with sweet longan fruit generated any excitement. Pan-fried cilantro oysters proved to be an overcooked, oddly bland omelet. Glazed in a glossy fish sauce, whole squab (the pigeon on which South China dotes) was dryish, boring and expensive at $23.95 -- a price that includes a beaky, disembodied head that could star in Addams Family Recipes.

Dinner here is a well-run affair attended by captains primed to ease the passage of English-speaking guests. Most of the prosperous-looking clientele is Chinese, with a Vietnamese component of perhaps 30 percent, and they are arrayed through the celebration-oriented dining room in groups large and small. Slide a partition here, and you've got a semi-private wedding party; move a lacquered screen there, and a high-school graduation banquet acquires a sense of occasion.

The expansive room, a serene sea of ivory trimmed in black and muted cinnabar, can hold up to 800 people. And on Saturday and Sunday noons, that's exactly what it does -- several times over. Figure on showing up by 11:30 if you want to beat the dim sum mob devouring the habit-forming tea-house snacks that constitute Chinese brunch.

They're scarfing down pillowy baked buns stuffed with subtle barbecued pork and Chinese bacon. They're littering the special plastic dim sum tablecloths with crumbs from superb sesame-seeded puff pastries hiding cabbage and extravagantly crunchy Sputnik balls of shrimp with preserved black egg. They're cutting the richness of black-mushroom-laced vegetable spring rolls with skinny, crisply braised stalks of gai lan, the Chinese broccoli. They're flagging down a cart for more cilantro-spiked meat turnovers -- ever so gently fried. They're drinking endless cups of hot tea and awaiting their second wind, while the parade of carts and staff-borne trays circles relentlessly.

Everything is so meticulously done that experimenting is a low-risk enterprise. Long, airy crullers wrapped in a thin, cool noodle skin and scissored into neat cross-sections? Why the hell not? Shrimp and banana rolls? We'll take some. Golden fried shrimp patties with a sweet dip grow on you; so do shrimp and pork turnovers encased in a crisp shell resembling sweetened cream of wheat. Soft noodle sheets rolled around a delicious mince of vegetables and black mushrooms turn out to be the suavest cheung fun in town. Only a bland, pasty taro-root turnover and pastier stuffed crab fail to please. But sunny custard tarts are just light enough, just sweet enough.

Everyone appears to be having a swell time. The tiny girl in the hot pink cheong sam; the guys accessorized with cellular phones and pagers; the beautiful young woman sporting a Limited T-shirt and a faux-Vuitton bag. People cluster around an awning-topped steam table on wheels for esoteric Hong Kong delicacies labeled in Chinese. By 12:15 there's not an empty table in the place, and you're plotting your next visit.

Dim sum every day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, and 9:30 to 4 weekends, sounds like an irresistible proposition. At night, there's the very Southern Chinese water buffalo hot pot left to try, not to mention the seriously Chiu Chow fried rice with chicken and salted fish, or the Southeast Asian-ized sate crabs -- a reflection of the eclectic, melting-pot culinary tradition that makes latter-day Hong Kong more than a little like Houston. Thanks to the Imperial Palace Five -- chefs Chang Tak Hing, Sing To, Kin Wah Ng, Su Xia Cheng and manager Raymond Wong -- Houston Chinese food suddenly seems interesting again.

Imperial Palace, 9160 Bellaire Blvd., 773-3881.

Imperial Palace:
Chiu Chow quail, $6.95;
rack of venison, $14.95;
wild boar ribs with mustard greens, $12.95;
fried prawns with walnuts, $13.50.

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