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Palace Feast 

Don't miss the suckling pig or the drunken chicken, but skip the dim sum

Wednesday, Apr 18 2007
When faced with an extraordinary multi-page menu like the one you're handed at Koi Palace, the famed Cantonese restaurant in Daly City, you can be a trifle overwhelmed. The menu runs 18 pages: a page each for tea, appetizers, barbecue specials, soup, shark's fin soup (10 different versions, plus two "double-boiled" soups that must be ordered in advance), dried seafood (with four imported abalone dishes, also necessitating advance ordering), vegetables, clay pots, live seafood, deluxe set dinners, desserts, and noodles, rice, and buns, with two pages each for chef's specials and family dinners.

There was so much reading to do that it was only later that I realized the color photos of an additional 15 dishes on the front and back of the cover (including the intriguing sour-prunes-stewed duck, braised sea cucumber and duck web, and boneless chicken wings in coffee glaze) were of specials that didn't appear elsewhere inside the menu.

I'd heard of Koi Palace long before I moved to San Francisco. In Los Angeles, where freeway jaunts to the San Gabriel Valley suburbs of Monterey Park and Rowland Heights for Chinese food were common, foodies spoke of going straight from SFO to Koi Palace for multi-course feasts.

But there were so many other Chinese restaurants to explore in San Francisco and the East Bay that it took a while before I stuffed five of us in a car and headed to Daly City. We loved the suburban ease of parking in the huge shopping-mall lot right in front of the green-tile-topped restaurant (you can't miss it, it's right next to the Outback Steakhouse). Inside, the lobby features a waterfall sandwiched between glass etched with koi fish, and 1,500-gallon fish tanks displaying abalone, lobsters both small and patriarchal, crabs of varying sizes, tiny bright-red shrimp, and other piscine temptations.

The restaurant boasts seating capacity for 400, but that figure includes the several private and semi-private party rooms off the large high-ceilinged main room, which appears to hold a couple of hundred, in fairly densely packed tables. We're led to a big round table by the koi pond, which contains a colorful fountain topped by a tea pot with a constantly pouring spout, which fascinates 5-year-old Ben (there are lots of big parties, with lots of children). My mother is instantly drawn to the Live Seafood page, from which we order steamed lobster in garlic vermicelli and ginger-scallion crab. Beautiful glossy ducks are hanging up in an adjacent kitchen window, so we order Peking duck, and we spring an extra $12 for an accompaniment of minced duck meat in lettuce cups. Also from the barbecue page, we order drunken chicken, suckling pig, and a squab dish. And from among the 14 different vegetables, Chinese broccoli (aka gailan) in ginger wine sauce. I try to interest the group in a soup, a clay pot, coffee spareribs, or crispy golden frog, but the consensus is that we have plenty of food coming.

It's apparent from the enormous platter containing dozens of pieces of the crackling, lacquered crispy Peking duck skin, plus the duck legs and head, accompanied by a woven basket containing steamed buns, and a dish of dark, sweet, thick Hoisin sauce surrounded by sliced scallions, that we're not going to be hungry. We slick the buns with sauce, install the skin (still bearing a thin layer of succulent fatty meat) inside with a ruff of the green onions, and savor our delightful little sandwiches. This is followed by an equally large platter bearing sautéed shredded duck meat heaped atop crispy rice noodles, with a stack of iceberg lettuce cups alongside. We pile the duck and noodles into the lettuce, anoint it with hoisin, soy, sesame oil, or hot mustard, according to our taste, and roll them up into tasty little bundles with a pleasing contrast of textures.

When the drunken chicken arrives, it doesn't look like anything that should appear on the barbecue page: The yellow skin of the sliced bird looks like it came straight out of a Jewish grandmother's soup kettle. But the equally pale meat underneath is moist, firm, and imbued with a lovely intense wine flavor — it's the most fragrant drunken chicken I've ever had. The suckling pig (we've ordered the most modest of four different-sized dishes — there's also whole suckling pig, for $190) looks like a lacquer box set on a white plate, a perfect rectangle, cut into even chunks. I want to use the word "succulent" yet again, as I did with the duck (and the chicken brought it to mind, too). The skin is crunchy, the meat tender.

The ginger-and-scallion sautéed crab is also delicious, but I've had equally good versions elsewhere — it's outclassed by the more unusual, amazing drunken chicken and suckling pig. And we're somewhat distressed by the dry, flavorless, sadly overcooked lobster. Servers have stopped by after every course to ask if everything is OK, but when I tell one that we are disappointed in the lobster, he tells me that the piece I'm holding with my chopsticks is part of the meatless head, ignoring the several other denuded pieces of shell on my plate, and offers neither to take the dish away or replace it with something more to our liking.

I'm also perplexed that, when we were specifically asked if we wanted rice when we ordered, it takes three requests for it to eventually be brought to the table, in little individual lidded bowls. And I wish we were offered our choice of the eight different complimentary teas, though the jasmine that's brought unasked to the table is fragrant indeed.

Even after the duck, chicken, and pig, my father says that his favorite dish is the gailan. The subtly glazed stalks are fresh, tender, and have an elusive flavor of the sweetest possible asparagus. The squab never made it to the table; we still have plenty left over to take home, in see-through plastic lidded containers that are brought to the table (they're microwaveable, a nice touch). Another nice touch are the orange slices and firm little mango puddings brought to the table, gratis.

Koi Palace has a triple subhead — Dim Sum, Seafood, Tea House — (they only offer a few dim sum, steamed buns and dumplings, at dinner), so I return with two girlfriends for a dim sum lunch. We're handed a numbered paper ticket that reassuringly tells us that there are only three parties waiting ahead of us, and we're seated quickly. I'm told on weekends that wait can be an hour. We're squeezed around a table meant for two.

We're not permitted to order from a paper menu that lists dozens of dishes, with places for checks besides them. Some dishes are available sporadically; others are sold out. By the time I convince a waiter to take a full order, my friends are already stuffed with the dishes we've randomly chosen. The women who emerge from the kitchen bearing laden trays point to the dish's name on the menu if it's unfamiliar to us.

We try big custardy squares of lightly fried tofu, fat little steamed pork dumplings with an almost bready exterior, a plate of sweet-glazed barbecued pork, shrimp har gaw glowing pink through translucent skin, and Shanghai steamed dumplings thoughtfully served in little silver paper cups, so you won't lose a drop of the magical broth, which is what makes them special. When I ask for spinach shrimp dumplings, we're brought ones stuffed with spinach, chicken, and pork, instead. And they've already run out of don tat, the little egg custard tarts. I ask for cocoa-banana custard, but settle for mango puddings, again (and this time they're not free!). We should have grabbed the thousand-layered cake or the sugar egg puffs when they went by.

I'm not nearly as impressed by the dim sum as I was by our dinner.

What really impresses me is how alluring Koi Palace has become to me, more so than the dozens of places much closer to where I live. Despite the few service glitches — some of which I chalk up to the place being completely full on both occasions — I'm ready to assemble an even larger group and return posthaste.

I want some crispy golden frog and some more suckling pig.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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