It’s pretty disconcerting when, straight out of the ballpark, a promising new restaurant underwhelms to the point that you are inclined to write it off completely based on a single visit. Doing so would be hasty — agreed — but such was the case when we tried Crown Seafood Restaurant, the gargantuan, 11,000-square-foot behemoth prominently located in the center of Lion Plaza on the main Chinatown drag of Bellaire Boulevard.
Chinese-style salt and pepper lobster — usually vibrant orange in color and mouthwatering upon presentation — arrived at our table looking washed out, dull and strangely grayish in tint. In fact, all the dishes we ordered suffered from the same affliction, an unfortunate optical illusion that could be attributed to the restaurant’s unattractive, yellowish flood lighting.
Visual appeal of the dishes notwithstanding, things wouldn’t have gone so badly had the dishes redeemed themselves on taste. Sadly, they didn’t. With the exception of one plate of sautéed chives and salted fish, we endured what can only aptly be described as a complete dud of a meal.
What could have been a plate of juicy, tantalizing lobster was instead an overcooked, bland mess, dredged in so much cornstarch and flour that there was a kind of thick, almost stale-tasting coat on the crustacean. Ong choy (water spinach) sautéed with chao (fermented bean paste), though cooked to the right doneness and displaying an auspiciously pert green tint, was seasoned incorrectly, with a strangely off, mildly metallic aftertaste.
The restaurant special of whole red crab and bean threads in a clay pot — a steal at $10 and impossible not to order — looked impressive on presentation, but was little more than a jumble of soupy noodles tinged with crab essence, the crab legs so thin that getting any meat from the shell would have required a great deal more work than it was worth.
Even a simple plate of dry beef chow fun noodles, which should have been easily and competently executed, had problems. Not only were the noodles way too oily, but they lacked the subtle yet characteristic char you’re supposed to get from food cooked in a wok.
“The Chinese cooks in Houston are lazy,” proclaimed my dining companion and go-to Chinese food authority Tony, who had just returned from his annual foodie pilgrimage to China. “See the dull white color on the clams?” he said, pointing to the plate of overcooked black bean clams that we’d mostly left uneaten. “That color means that they boiled the clams before sautéeing them in the black bean sauce. It’s faster than steam-cooking them the way they’re supposed to be cooked,” he said sagely.
As it turned out, it would take two more visits before we discovered something spectacular — a lunch that holds it own with the best in Houston.
In a city where Asian restaurants open, close and change ownership with little fanfare, it would have been hard to miss the opening of Crown Seafood Restaurant. It took over the center location of Lion Plaza, formerly a Kroger grocery space that had remained empty for years, and its arrival in December — signaled by a bright red grand-opening sign that hung invitingly for several months — was one of the biggest the area has seen in recent years.
Crown was brought to life by partners Brian Fung and Rich Wong — the duo responsible for introducing the $18.99 two-lobster special that propelled Confucius Seafood Restaurant to local fame in 2010 (they sold the business to the restaurant’s cooks approximately three years ago) — and its success and longevity seemed a foregone conclusion. Fung, who also owns a seafood wholesale business, would supply the seafood, while Wong would run the operations.
Indeed, the restaurant’s ritzy design — flamboyantly Vegas in style with its red-gold color scheme and glittering, diamond-like circular chandeliers suspended from soaring ceilings — seemed to point at lofty goals. The Crown name and logo, too, seemed like a proclamation to the established Chinese seafood restaurants in town — Fung’s Kitchen, Ocean Palace, Regal Seafood and Harbor Seafood, to name a few — that Crown would give them a run for their money.
Then the unthinkable happened: Four months into the restaurant’s opening, tragedy struck when Wong, the operations guy, suddenly passed away. It was in the aftermath of this tragedy that we completed our visits, when obvious operational issues — understandable in the wake of this sudden loss — could not be disguised.
Service, though friendly, was extremely inefficient. Instead of being seated close together in a single area, patrons were spread almost randomly throughout the main dining room, apparently to make it look less empty. Servers stationed in the middle of the room were therefore tasked with taking care of tables at least 20 feet away. Short of getting up from our seats to flag someone down, it took us more than ten minutes just to get someone’s attention so we could order a beer.
We had fewer problems with the promptness of service during a second visit, when we were seated near the middle of the restaurant, but other than showing the barest glimmer of improvement on the food front, the kitchen continued to send out plates that were below par and somewhat sloppily thrown together.
A crab and white asparagus soup was good but not remarkable. A plate of Peking duck looked an unappetizing dark brown color thanks to the terrible lighting, but ended up being the highlight of all the main dishes we tried throughout our visits. The skin was suitably crispy with all the fat rendered, and the seasoning was on point. It was a Peking duck as solid as they come.
We had ordered a set menu composed of six dishes that night that, on paper, had sounded like an excellent value. Sadly, when more than half that menu turned out to be mediocre at best, the set menu proved to be an expensive mistake. How else would you describe the ginger and scallion lobster that arrived on a bed of stale-tasting thin egg noodles; the attractively plated but flavorless chicken and vegetable in Supreme broth; the jumble of standard-issue celery, broccoli, lotus root and wood ear that made up the Eight Treasures Vegetable; and the sautéed fish fillet with vegetables that, straight from the kitchen, looked like a plate that had sat on the counter all afternoon until the edges of the protein had browned from oxidation?
This is one of the reasons we never got around to ordering the live seafood, Crown’s supposed forte. There are large water tanks at the back of the restaurant displaying fresh seafood such as live spot prawns, whole freshwater fish, lobster, Dungeness crab and king crab. When the kitchen couldn’t demonstrate competence with the simplest of dishes, however, why take the risk of ordering a whole steamed fish that — at $30 per pound and weighing an average of two to three pounds — might end up being nothing more than an exercise in unnecessary expenditure? There is no return policy on overcooked seafood, after all.
Rather than go down that path, we gave Crown one final chance to redeem itself with its dim sum lunch, only to be blown away.
That’s right. After two altogether dismal evening meals, we revisited Crown during the day and, lo and behold, had what was an undeniably excellent, so-good-it-could-have-been-made-in-Hong Kong dim sum lunch.
Offered daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends, the dim sum is so good here because it’s made to order. It’s also very well thought out and organized. When you sit down, you’re given a laminated picture menu, a pencil and a long order sheet for you to mark off what you want.
It’s not as engaging as the push-cart dim sum you get at other places around town, but what you do get comes fresh and directly from the kitchen to your table, which means it doesn’t spend any extra time getting cold while it’s wheeled around.
Plump har gow dumplings — the first thing you should try when you want to test how good the dim sum is — are beautiful, chock-full of chopped shrimp enrobed in a perfectly steamed, semi-translucent, slightly chewy white dumpling wrapper. Xiu mai pork dumplings, likewise, are mouthwatering, their chunky, overfilled appearance matched by the delicious flavor and textures of the seasoned pork filling.
Shrimp chee cheong fun rolled rice cakes come to the table looking polished and fresh, the sheets of each rice roll silky yet resilient in texture and stuffed with three firm, well-sized quality shrimp. A single crispy, panko-crusted shrimp-wrapped crab claw is exceptional as well, one giant egg-shaped golden oval cut into six small bites that can easily be shared.
So, how to explain the evident discrepancy between the quality and execution of the lunch dim sum and the evening meals? In a phone interview with Fung after we’d completed our visits, he confirmed what could easily be deduced from our tastings: “The dim sum is a totally separate operation. The regular menu is a different department completely.”
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Crown Seafood is a beautiful, grandiose restaurant and a convenient choice for large families and parties of ten or more who want to experience a banquet-style, multi-course Cantonese seafood-filled meal. If you’re willing to order the set menu with live seafood that runs an average of $30 per pound, there’s a good possibility you’ll have a better experience than we did.
As it is, for the average diner who comes in with the intention of ordering an à la carte for lunch or dinner, there are serious operational issues that need to be overcome before Crown Seafood even comes close to competing with Houston’s more established Chinese seafood restaurants. With an investment of this size, we hope it can turn things around soon. In the meantime, better to visit during lunch for a dose of the exemplary daily dim sum.
Crown Seafood Restaurant
10796 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-575-1768, www.crownseafoodrestaurant.com. Hours: Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. - 10.p.m.
Crab meat & asparagus soup $12.99
Virginia deep sea crab with bean thread $10
Stir fried clam with pepper and black bean sauce $14.99
Salt and pepper two lobster special $26
Tossed flat rice noodle with beef $9.99
Water spinach with bean curd chili sauce $11.99
Peking duck $30.99
Steamed shrimp dumpling (har gow) $4.85
Steamed shrimp & pork dumpling (xiu mai) $3.85
Steamed rice noodle with shrimp (gee cheong fun) $4.85
Deep fried crab claw $6.25