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.
"It's minced squab with lettuce wrappers," says one woman. "It's the only reason I come here."
We're soon spooning the same stuff onto iceberg leaves and eagerly devouring the tacos. My dining companion asks what squab is, exactly. Given the tribulations of the earlier courses, I tell her it's a kind of poultry. This is true, of course, but more specifically, it's a young pigeon. I figure it's best to avoid such specificity and the discussion that inevitably ensues about where Chinese restaurants get their pigeons. As you can imagine, there are lots of urban myths on the subject.
Dong Ting used to serve an excellent rendition of this dish, which is properly known as "birds in jade nest." In the classical preparation, the minced squab is sautéed with duck liver and mushrooms. There are some minced mushrooms in the Golden Palace rendition, but I don't detect any liver. The squab is also a little too well done. We eat it anyway. As Don Quixote once quipped, "There's no sauce in the world like hunger."
Once upon a time, Golden Palace was Houston's favorite weekend dim sum restaurant. It's still very popular. But it has been eclipsed in quality by several newer places. Kim Son in Stafford (12750 Southwest Freeway) is the reigning dim sum champion. Its Hong Kong-born chef turns out more than 100 different dishes, all attractively presented. The carts that crisscross the restaurant always manage to deliver the dishes piping hot. But Kim Son doesn't serve dim sum during the week.
Ocean Palace in the Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire comes in a close second in the weekend dim sum derby. The food isn't quite as hot or good-looking as Kim Son's, but on the weekends, when the entire 1,000-seat upstairs ballroom is full, you can't beat the place for sheer spectacle. On weekdays, however, because the crowds are smaller, the carts don't go back to the kitchen and reload often enough. So the food tends to get cold.
This makes Golden Palace Houston's top weekday dim sum destination. Ordinarily, I prefer to get my dim sum from a cart, but at Golden Palace I've learned to make an exception. In fact, it is the absence of carts that makes the dim sum here so good on weekdays. Made to order, the food comes to the table hot. And without the Sunday brunch crunch, the kitchen has the time to do it right.