Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Great Dim Sum Hunt

First off, apologies are in order for my prolonged absence. A combination of weekend-long volleyball tournaments and midterms claimed my life for the past few weeks but with those things out of the way I should have plenty of time to post on a much more regular basis. Sorry to keep you waiting for so long.

Though I mentioned a hunt for the best taco shops in town a few posts ago, I’ve decided to take on a different endeavor. Rather than scour Fruitvale in a search of the most delicious taqueria in the area, I’ve decided to sift through Oakland Chinatown in order to find the best dim sum house. While I know that there are plenty of incredible taquerias in Fruitvale, I’m a bit more skeptical about finding excellent quality dim sum in Oakland. I know, I know, call me a pessimist but I’ve generally been underwhelmed by the majority of restaurants I’ve tried in Oakland when it comes to dim sum. Nevertheless, I have faith that there must be at least one restaurant that’s worthy of the “go to” label. Let’s hope so at least.

With the help of some friends I began my quest at the popular Peony Restaurant. It was the weekend and we arrived a little before noon thus the thirty minute wait was no big surprise, even for the restaurants large space.

We took in the scenery while we waited: the traffic jam of dim sum carts, white people looking slightly out of place and dejected in corner tables (we had our fingers crossed that we wouldn't suffer the same fate since I was the only one of our party of a meager half Chinese descent), the three generation family spread with the amazingly energetic Asian grandmas, the aloof parents and the children running amuck or playing their Nintendos. We also noticed a number of awards the restaurant had recieved from local papers and the dubious AOL Cityguide award. We hoped this experience would live up to the standard these awards meant.

After our long wait we were ushered to a round table for our party of 6. The problem was the table still hadn't been cleared of the last parties dinnerware when we were seated. We waited for five minutes for new place settings as dim sum carts passed. One of them approached our table but we had to explain that we had yet to receive our own plates to eat off of. We were finally able to flag a waiter, of which Peony is obviously in short supply, and ask for new settings. He came back shortly and in an unceremonious rush, cleared our table and clanged down some new settings. We were quite hungry by now and it was time to get some food on the table.

Our first dish was essentially har gow, or steamed shrimp dumplings with bamboo shoots, topped with some roe. It was a good start since these were very good and had the sticky, freshly steamed quality to them, reflected by their resilient wrappings.

The stuffed tofu skins were disappointing. They had been cooked too long and were bland and soggy. There was no nuance to the flavors and it tasted only of ground pork and salty broth.

In attempting to order Shanghai soup dumplings or xiao lung bao, my buddy Tim ended up with a gwoon tong gow or shark's fin soup dumpling. It's actually easy to see how the mistake happened since he was just asking for a soup dumplings. Either way, the dish missed the mark. The only shark's fin to be found was in the name. Otherwise, this dish suffered a similar fate to the stuffed tofu skins above. The wrapping was overcooked and soggy and so was the filling, which again was bland in flavor and mushy in texture.

These were a mixed seafood dumpling containing shrimp, scallops and squid and they were surprisingly good. They were probably my second favorite after the first dish.

Since pea sprout leaves or dow mew, are one of my favorite vegetables, I was excited for this order of shrimp and pea sprout leaf dumplings. Sadly, they had been steamed too long, resulting in a soggy wrapping and leaves wilted to the point where there was no longer any crunch.

Pan fried shrimp and chive dumplings are one of my favorite dim sum items. These ones suffered a similar fate to many of the aforementioned dumplings. They were cold and no longer crispy and the filling was a bit soggy. Many of the dishes seemed to be holding too long from the kitchen to the front of the house.

I didn't expect to like these pork meat balls nearly as much as I did. They were surprisingly good and worth an order. It seemed like a trend was emerging where most of the items topped with fish balls were winners.

The other trend was that most dumpling items were being over-steamed while carted around. These shrimp dumplings managed to just barely escape that terrible fate and were actually quite good.

I always try to order lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice when I go to dim sum but this time they didn't have any accompanied by the lotus leaf. This version lacked the extra fragrance the leaves impart and was too dry.

The BBQ pork buns were average but again, they were sat too long in their cart and the bottoms were overly damp.

Steamed spareribs with black bean sauce were simple and good.

We finished the meal with an order of beef chow fun in black bean sauce. The dish was poor. It was much more oily than it needed to be and the sauce was mostly soy and hardly any black bean, the complete opposite of how it should have been.

Overall the food was mediocre on average. Some dishes were really pretty good but others were way off. Service throughout the meal, aside from the dim sum ladies, was practically nonexistent and rushed when it was there. I don't usually expect outstanding service from Chinese restaurants, a topic that deserves a post in it of itself, but I do expect the establishment to hire enough waiters to attend to the house properly. The wait staff on duty was clearly overworked and not too happy about it. Though service may or may not affect patrons opinion of the restaurant in this case, the lack of staff definitely affects the quality of the food which affects customer opinion for sure. I would highly suggest that Peony reevaluate its current system. Multiple dishes came out soggy since they had been sitting too long. Furthermore, the wait between carts was fairly long and we were fortunate enough to have good seating. I can imagine that people sitting in the corners of the restaurant may have only been passed a handful of times. My solution to the problem would be to ditch the carts altogether and move on to a ticket order system. That way each table checks off the items they want when the sit down and then they are prepared to order. Additional wait staff would likely need to be hired for this but that needs to be done regardless. The result would be fresher food and shorter wait times, offering the restaurant rewards in greater customer satisfaction as well as the opportunity to clear more covers for the price of the extra wages. If the owners of Peony are concerned about the long term well being of their restaurant, I think the switch is something they should seriously consider.

Peony Restaurant
388 9th St Ste 288
Oakland, CA, 94607

1 comment:

Krizia said...

Have you tried Legendary Palace in Oakland? I wrote a post about it. It's mostly pictures though. Thanks for writing this review. I was considering trying Peony, but not so much now.