Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Cantonese Lollapalooza

Regular readers of this blog are well aware that I have a major crush on Chinese food. I don't know if I can commit to a favorite regional cuisine, but for dinner with a large group there's nothing better than a Cantonese seafood restaurant. In the past several years I've found the offerings in Manhattan's Chinatown lacking. Ping's, which began its life in Flushing before opening on Mott Street, was for a while my favorite Chinese restaurant of the new millennium, but it started slipping about a year ago. My current favorite Manhattan Cantonese is Phoenix Garden, on East 40th Street. But I now a have a new favorite Cantonese place in New York City, and it's in Flushing, Queens.

I brought a group of eight on a Thursday night to Imperial Palace, at 136-13 37th Avenue, just off Main Street. It's a popular place in what is now New York's largest Chinatown, and they were doing a brisk midweek business. As is the custom at such affairs, my dining companions put themselves in my able ordering hands. I ordered a mix of house specialties and Cantonese standbys that are among my benchmark dishes.

We ended up with what was easily the best Cantonese meal I've eaten in the past couple of years. Indeed, I'd be hard-pressed to remember another Chinese meal in New York where the restaurant batted 1000. Eight dishes and every one a winner. Nothing was too salty, too greasy or too heavy.

I ordered two vegetable dishes: ong choi (Chinese water spinach) with preserved bean curd sauce and snow pea leaves with crab meat sauce. These are two of my favorite Chinese green vegetables. Imperial Palace made exemplary versions of both. Snow pea leaves (sometimes called pea shoots), which are sort of like a sweeter version of spinach, are served with crab meat sauce at many restaurants. This preparation wasn't on the menu, but they accommodated my request with what was perhaps the best rendition of the dish I've had, the wonderfully delicate egg sauce populated with sizable chunks of delicious fresh crabmeat.

Crispy noodles (chow mein) with mixed seafood was similarly a Platonic version of the dish. I can say the same for the Peking pork chops, which despite the name is a staple of Cantonese menus. The sauce for this dish can sometimes teeter into the too sweet or the too sour, but not at Imperial Palace. The only dish I had a minor complaint about was the salt and pepper squid, but that's a matter of personal preference as I prefer a lighter breading.

The restaurant shone on those five Cantonese standards, but the house specialties were the estimable icing on the cake. One dish we couldn't miss was the Dungeness crab with glutenous rice. A whole crab (two sizes, $21 or $25) is served in a bamboo steamer with a heap of sticky rice that picks up the crab juices and seasoning. I don't know what goes into the preparation, but there's an enchanting and subtle mix of spices, and I think I detected a bit of rice wine. As with everything at the restaurant, subtlety reigns supreme.

Some of the specials have photos on the menu, so we saw that the dish that's called "fried lamb" was actually lamb chops. An order normally comes with six pieces, so I asked the waiter to extend it to eight and charge accordingly. They were mildly cumin-spiced rib chops, another gem of a dish.

Another item on the menu that has only recently started appearing at Chinese restaurants was sable (black cod). We had the luxuriantly rich fish on a sizzling platter with black pepper sauce. This wasn't officially a "special;" it was listed in the general fish section of the menu. Given the current market prices for sable, this ample serving was a steal at $16.95.

The whole meal was, in fact, a steal. With a bunch of beers the check totaled $181. That's under $23 per person before tip.

The subway ride from Manhattan that night was a pain, as the 7 train was terribly crowed with hordes for the night's Mets game, and the already long ride to Flushing took longer than usual due to the extra time at each stop as more people tried to pile on beyond capacity. Some of us were a bit testy, but the meal cured everything. Still, I think I'll consult the Mets' schedule before I plan another outing on the 7 line.


Blogger Homesick Texan said...

Excellent! I'm always looking for new places to try outside of Manhattan. And good tip on checking the Mets schedule!

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are in Brooklyn some day try Park Asia, on 8th Ave south of 65th st. As good as anything in Hong Kong.

9:07 AM  

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