Friday, May 1, 2015

A late-spring dinner at Summer Palace

On a Thursday evening of one uneventful week in late April we went to Summer Palace at Island Shangri-la for a casual family dinner, which was also an early birthday celebration for mom. It's been ages since I last came - definitely in terms of years, not months - and first time for dinner, so to me this is as good as trying a new place.

The restaurant - located one level down from the hotel lobby - featured an old-fashioned style decor with dark lacquer furniture, chairs in red upholstery, large crystal chandeliers, clothed round tables and silk wallpaper in a sizable, brightly-lit open dining area that could comfortably sit a hundred or so. It's more traditional in a sense as compared to many new ones which tend to go for more contemporary, western fine-dining restaurant style with dim lighting and all, but this still looked elegant and timeless.

The restaurant was quite full when we arrived - mainly with out-of-towners, people attending business functions with their suits and ties or high heels, and a few regulars who seem to be occupying the same table every day of the week. Menu was very much typical of any Chinese restaurants in town - with a few dozen dishes to choose from in appetizers, soups and delicacies, seafood, meat, vegetarian and rice and noodles sections. Cantonese style cooking formed the backbone of the a la carte menu, accompanied by a few well-known items from various regional cuisines. On the front page was a list of chef's recommendations based on seasonal ingredients.

Not looking for a particular fancy meal - we will happily leave it to those who are dining on expense account - we went for a few tried-and-true simple, traditional dishes. We started with a couple cold appetizers - both the marinated sliced shin of beef (五香滷牛展) and duck tongues with jelly fish (秘製鴨舌拼海蜇) came with good portions and well-seasoned. I particularly enjoyed the duck tongues marinated with a light soy sauce (said to be of a secret recipe) for its crunchy texture and sweet flavor.

The rest of our savory dishes arrived at almost around the same time - normally I would prefer they be served one by one but since we didn't order that many dishes for just the 4 of us it's not a huge problem. And they were all very good, which was what mattered anyway.

The braised sea cucumbers with morel mushrooms and leeks (menu listed it as scallion but I think leek is a more appropriate description) (京蔥海參燴羊肚菌) is a traditional Northern Chinese dish requiring rather long preparation time and both sea cucumbers and morel mushrooms were both considered a delicacy. The sea cucumber was braised to the perfect soft texture and flavors were rich and well-infused, plus the morel mushrooms - albeit their small sizes - and chucks of leeks added to the rich tastes and contrasting textures.

Braised spring beans with olive vegetables (乾煸欖菜四季豆) is a common home-style dish that are more southern style but similarly rich. While most restaurant would include chunks of grounded pork as one of the ingredients, here it's prepared as a meatless dish with just the pickled olive vegetables as condiments. The beans were super fresh and sauteed to the right tenderness. Not the super crunchy type but have a good enough bite and flavors.

We felt we were somewhat misled by the Chinese description of our next dish, which was listed as Dongpo Pork with Preserved Vegetables (梅菜東坡肉煲), implying this being a Shanghainese dish served with the fat pork belly cut in square and slow-braised with rich and sweet soy sauce and rice wine. Instead it turned out to be what was known to be Mui Choi Kau Yuk (梅菜扣肉), a similar dish but of Cantonese/Hakka style with the pork belly cut into thick slices, similarly braised but with a slightly lighter marinate, and cooked with preserved mustard cabbage. I thought I could live with a stronger flavor in the meat - it looked like it's steamed separately from the pickled vegetables than put together before serving, rather than cooking them all in a covered clay casserole in low heat as it would have been traditionally - but everyone else seems to have liked it.

My favorite of the night was the deep-fried crispy chicken (脆皮炸子雞). There were quite a number of different chicken dishes on the menu, but my wife - aka the poultry connoisseur - specifically requested one that's cooked as a whole (instead of those that were chopped into pieces before cooking). That left us with the easy choice of crispy chicken, which was their only signature dish that fits that criteria. And they were right - the meat was juicy, cooked just right from outside right to the bone, and the skin was deep-fried to perfect crispness. It was wonderful and we finished our half portion in no time.

The rice, which came towards the end of our meal and after we finished all our other dishes, was also excellent. The fried rice was wrapped and steamed inside the lotus leaf (飄香荷葉飯), taking in its subtle flavors along with that of the soy and abalone sauces, without making the rice all soggy with the sauce. The other ingredients, including the meat and the mushrooms, were finely diced and well-mixed into the rice, so we got a taste of everything in each bite. And it came with huge portion - each of us must have gotten two big bowlful and we were so stuffed afterwards, in a good way.

Throughout the evening, service was friendly and attentive - the waitstaff dropped by right at the right time to refill our tea when the pot was emptied, bring our food to the table promptly, take away empty dishes just as we finished... there's absolutely nothing to complain about. The hotel was very kind to arrange a cake for us to celebrate mom's coming birthday so we skipped the Chinese dessert and went for just the slices of cake to conclude our dinner with. The Turino Cake came from the hotel's central pastry kitchen; at first I thought the combination of rose jam with chestnut cream cake seems a bit out of place, but turned out it's interestingly good.

Overall I thought the meal was more than decent and very enjoyable. It's certainly not those mind-blowing meals with new ingredients or new way of cooking, but everything was done just right as the way it should be. Well, sure it's probably on the pricey side, like what you have expected from a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the top hotels in town, but food was great, the portion was more than reasonable, service excellent and most importantly, we were well fed and left satisfied.

More pictures on my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157652123252382/

When? April 23 2015
Where? Summer Palace, Island Shangri-la Hotel, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Road, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Deep-fried Crispy Chicken
Web: http://www.shangri-la.com/hongkong/islandshangrila/dining/restaurants/summer-palace/


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