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By Katharine Shilcutt
Steam rises from the translucent shrimp dumpling (No. 55). The seductive morsel reclines enticingly on my plate, plump, juicy and too hot to eat. We have already devoured most of the marshmallow-shaped xiu mai dumplings (No. 2), which are filled with juicy pork and decorated on the top with some kind of orange paste. We've also made a pretty good dent in the warm turnip pudding (No. 22). New Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant on Bellaire offers dim sum seven days a week, but oddly it's the weekday dim sum that really shines.
8520 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036
Region: Outer Loop - SW
We had sampled the weekend version of Golden Palace's dim sum the previous Sunday. The place was completely packed at noon, and we had to wait ten minutes for a table. When we finally sat down we were famished. We eagerly ordered several varieties of dumplings and dishes from the carts that were circling the restaurant. But the dishes we sampled ranged from lukewarm to downright icy. Several delicacies, like xiu mai topped with quail eggs, were quite unique. But no matter how exquisitely they're prepared, dumplings don't taste good cold.
The dim sum aesthetics also leave a lot to be desired on the weekends. Some items are served directly from stacks of banged-up aluminum steamers, which bear a distressing resemblance to a pile of perforated garbage can lids. And the artful little touches that decorate the dim sum dishes here during the week are completely missing. "It's all so beige," my brunch companion complained of the endlessly monochromatic food.
Golden Palace's weekday dim sum seems to come from a completely different, and much better, restaurant. Which is probably why there is such a large crowd here on this Wednesday afternoon. Most of the clientele consists of Asians sitting at large tables, gabbing, drinking hot tea from small cups and eating dim sum.
The leisurely flow of tea and conversation barely abates as I finally stab the hot shrimp dumpling with my chopsticks, sop it in the chile-and-soy dipping sauce and swoop the whole steaming mess into my mouth. It has barely cooled off enough for me to chew without gasping -- just the way I like it.
During our Sunday brunch, I leafed through Golden Palace's extensive dinner menu. With Dong Ting gone, I've been looking for a place to eat classical Chinese cuisine, and I thought Golden Palace might be worth a try.
After witnessing the mad rush of the weekend dim sum brunch, it's shocking to find the huge restaurant deserted at dinnertime. On a weekday night, only one other table is occupied. It feels like visiting the empty ballpark the day after the big game. You can almost hear the roar of the absent crowd.
The dinner menu features such delicacies as double-boiled superior shark's fin soup for $200, along with rarities such as abalone and geoduck. Flipping through the pages of exotic Chinese specialties, I am completely lost. I ask the waitress to help us pick an appetizer. She evidently doesn't do this very often. Her recommendation is sea cucumber with mushrooms and baby bok choy. I shrug my shoulders and go with it. I like jellyfish, so why not give sea cucumber a try?
"Isn't sea cucumber some kind of underwater creature?" asks my intrepid dining companion when the waitress has gone. It is indeed a marine animal, in the same class as sea urchins and starfish. It has a rubbery, tubular body without any bones, I learn later at the Web site for Orient magazine.
When the plate arrives, we start on the baby bok choy and chewy mushroom caps in brown sauce. We eat our way around the translucent chunks of sea cucumber until we can't avoid them anymore. "When cooked, it is soft, cartilaginous, almost transparent, absorbing all the flavors of the sauce and the other ingredients," says orientmag.com.
"Cartilaginous" is a good word for the texture, in that it describes something few Westerners would willingly eat. The inch-long sections are soft and fatty on the outer edge and chewy with a squeaky sort of crunch in the middle. "It tastes like mucilage," observes my friend after one tentative bite. "You know, the stuff they make art erasers out of."
The waitress has also recommended an all-white crab-and-asparagus soup, which arrives before my friend can explain why she was eating erasers. There is very little crab and a whole lot of cornstarch in the bowl. The white asparagus is cut into sections that float among streaks of white egg drops. It's disgustingly bland. But by now I'm getting hungry, so I add enough sriracha and soy sauce to turn the formerly snow-white soup a muddy orange. With the spices added, I can choke some down. But I am loath to ask the waitress's advice on an entrée.
The restaurant's only other customers are two Asian women, and they seem to be enjoying themselves. Driven by my mounting hunger, I get up and walk over to their table, rudely interrupting their meal. The table is covered with an array of lettuce leaves and condiments and some kind of chopped meat. I apologize profusely and ask them what they're eating.
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