Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dish on Dining: Koi Palace

Dim Sum Gem Still Going Strong
365 Gellert Ave., Daly City
Serramonte Plaza
Open daily for dim sum lunch and seafood dinner
PH: 650.992.9000
Major credit cards, reservations (primarily large parties and dinner) accepted

Koi Palace in Daly City is my go-to dim sum tea house whenever I have out-of-town guests. The bustling crowds, the dramatic surroundings, and of course the variety of exquisite dim sum paraded fresh from the kitchen makes this one of the best dim sum restaurants in the Bay Area.

I have to qualify the above statement by saying that since I got rid of my car, I haven’t been able to really try other new dim sum places around the Bay Area, especially new ones in the emerging Chinese community in Dublin or along the Peninsula. Still, after a recent visit, I feel comfortable in saying Koi Palace still pleases. You can’t go wrong if you’re looking for authentic dim sum and some off-the-wall creations.

Hidden in the back of the main road and a few yards away from the Serramonte Shopping Center, Koi Palace has received so many positive reviews that it’s no longer a real hidden treasure. Just follow the cars circling around the area looking for parking and you know you’re near.

I recently went to Koi Palace for dim sum with my friend Sylvia, who is from the Bay Area but now lives in my old neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn. She had a craving for dim sum, and after some toying with the idea of trying someplace different, we decided to go with the tried and true.

We arrived at about 11:15 a.m. and—despite the large crowd—were told that it would just be a 10-minute wait for a table for two.

Getting a table is a real sport in itself. After renovations expanded the restaurant a couple of years ago, Koi Palace has a computerized system that prints out tickets with your number and the number in your party. I feel this is a more organized and fair way of handling the crowds, but it’s still prone to human interference.

For example, as we waited for our table and the 10 minutes stretched to about 30 (you have to build in a long wait time when going for good dim sum), our No. 71 was called. But as we made our way to the front, tripping over people sitting on chairs all along the way, another party of 3 with the No. 70 argued that they should get the table of 2 before us. So basically they pressured the hostess to squeeze three into a table for two.

By the time we got to the front, the hostess was already gone and so was our table. The lesson? Hang out near the hostess no matter how crowded because you don’t want to have your table stolen.

A few minutes later we were able to get a table behind the mini stage and near the kitchen. In most restaurants you don’t want to be seated near the kitchen because of the constant traffic back and forth. But at a dim sum tea house, it’s the most prime spot to get fresh, hot dishes right under your nose.

That was the case with the first item we snagged from the many dim sum servers carrying trays (there are more trays circling the room than carts because of the tight quarters). We got the pineapple buns, which actually is a dessert because it’s really a pastry.

Koi Palace’s pineapple buns (the name comes from the pineapple-like design on the top of the bun) are incredible because they’re filled with sweet custard, and I love custard. Because these were fresh from the kitchen, they were warm and so satisfying. (Sylvia was so excited to try the buns that she snatched one before I took the picture, so that explains why there’s only two when you typically get three on the plate.)

The waiters give you an order sheet that lists some of the more popular dim sum dishes. So you can mark the ones you want and hand that to your waiter to make sure you don’t miss one of your favorites coming around on the trays. The menu lists the standard dim sum like siu mai and baked char siu buns, but also the house specialties like coffee-flavored spareribs and roasted duck and cucumber wraps.

We started marking the menu but trays and trays of food kept coming that in the end we just ordered what was circulating. Here’s a look of what else we ate:

Black Bean Spare Ribs. I find this dish a bit difficult to eat because, 1) it takes a master to pick up the tiny, slippery rib pieces with your chopsticks and 2) sometimes you get more bone than meat per bite. Still, Koi Palace’s version had so much flavor that we didn’t want to pass it up. And they had several pieces with a nice bit of meat on the bone. (Pictured in the back is the Sticky Rice Chicken wrapped in lotus leaf.)

Sticky Rice Chicken Wrapped in Lotus Leaf. This is one of my favorite and here’s how it looks after I unwrapped the lotus leaf, which really infuses the sticky rice with that herbal flavor of the leaf when this dish is steamed. The filling has an assortment of chicken, Chinese sausage, shitake mushrooms and preserved duck egg, making this one of the best version I’ve had in awhile. The problem with eating this first (and the pineapple buns which are really dessert) is that Sylvia and I were already getting full. I know, bad planning.

Seafood Jook (Porridge). This is a popular breakfast dish, which is white rice that’s been boiled with broth until it turns into a porridge. A lady comes around with a cart with two varieties of jook, and we got the seafood version. The single order was filled to the rim and topped with roasted peanuts, bits of deep-fried airy dough, and green onion. The jook had a lot of fresh seafood bits in it, but both Sylvia and I agreed that the jook itself was on the bland side. Still, this is real comfort food and perfect if you have an upset stomach or a hangover. (FYI, we didn’t have either.)

Mystery Dumplings. OK, there are some things in the dim sum world that I just don’t know. This is one of them. They weren’t officially called mystery dumplings, I just don’t know what they’re officially called. The woman came by and I thought she said it was a crab dumpling (she was speaking Cantonese), so I ordered it. But when we ate it, it was filled with an intense savory herbal-like ingredient that was maybe dried scallops and bamboo shoots? This was my least favorite of the dishes we got.

Shrimp and Chives Dumpling. These dumplings were much better, a Shanghai-style dumpling filled with big chunks of shrimp and diced chives that are slightly pan-fried to give it a nice crispiness to its glutinous shell.

We ended our dim sum lunch with another dessert that I love and Sylvia never tried. It’s called dau-fu fa, which literally means “tofu flower.” My parents used to make this silken tofu-like dessert that’s really labor intensive because you have to strain the soybean milk through a bag to get out all the curds. So few dim sum restaurants serve this. And when they do, I always recommend them to friends and they often love it, just like Sylvia.

At Koi Palace, it’s served with a ginger syrup or a simple syrup drizzled on the layers of warm, silken tofu. I didn’t take a picture of this because basically you’ll just see a bowl of white tofu. It’s not the most glamorous dish, but it’s the most subtle and a nice way to end your dim sum experience.

There were so many other dishes that came by that we could have tried, but this is the problem with going to dim sum with just two people. Your choices are limited by your stomach. Still, Koi Palace still satisfied and despite the mad crowds in the front, you get more variety and unique dishes here than any other dim sum restaurants in town.

Side note: When you arrive at your table at most dim sum restaurant, you’ll be asked what kind of tea you want. You often feel the pressure to make a snap decision because the waiter always seems to need to rush off. At Koi Palace, the decision is harder because they have a variety of tea. But here are some basics to pair with your dim sum dining:

Oolong: This is the basic Chinese tea that can be very dark and heavy, depending on the quality. If you’re in a high-end place, ask for the high mountain, monkey-picked versions for better quality.

Jasmine: This is my go-to tea because it’s a light black tea with the slight floral fragrance of the jasmine. Virtually every dim sum restaurant serves this.

Chrysanthemum: This is a white tea made from the petals of the chrysanthemum flower. This is also nice and light although sometimes the chrysanthemum flowers can plug up your tea kettle.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Something for Everyone)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Koi Palace on Urbanspoon


SteamyKitchen said...

I always get Chrysanthemum tea! I miss Koi - used to live right by them

V.Streit said...

MMMM I love dim sum. I went to the abc seafood restaurant in san jose when I was visiting. It was sooo good. My friend went a week ago tho and he said it tasted much different this time around. They might have changed chefs or something.

Passionate Eater said...

Yes, I think that those ARE crab dumplings. I too love Koi Palace like a beast. I have to go out w/you and the Food Hoe to my beau's latest discovery soon. But it will be when I return to SF!

Anonymous said...

oh yum, I love Koi Palace! You guys ordered a respectable amount of food for just two people. I just ate a big lunch in chinatown and now I want some dumplings...

Anonymous said...

Oh my gawd, those pineapple buns look divine. Never had them before. Actually, never had dim sum at Koi Palace, either. Tried to go once on a Saturday afternoon. But even at 2:30 p.m., there was a huge crowd still in line. Sigh.

Single Guy Ben said...

Nila, see, I have to get down to San Jose too and check that out.

PE, I thought she said crab dumplings. It just didn't taste like crab and had no visible crab meat that I can tell. ... We definitely need to do a dim sum table when you get back! Can't wait to see where your new hubbie discovered.

Carolyn, I am still dreaming of those custard-filled pineapple buns. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Now exotic white teas are available in pyramid shapped tea bags