Finally had a chance to try this place out earlier in the week. For a weekday visit, the lineup was overall very impressive. For me I'm no longer interested in the bare bones dim sum basics that everyone pretty much knows that every dim sum restaurant can offer, much like your very standard typical offerings of nigiri sushi fish toppings. So whenever a place goes above and beyond to offer something unusual, whether it be innovative, reviving/introducing old school styles found in Hong Kong or even Canton province (to the point of "wow", "strange", "weird" or "wacky"), it gets ultra high marks from yours truly.
And with that said, Asian Pearl is definitely a real winner in my book. If San Bruno location executes this well on a weekday, I can only imagine what a full lineup dim sum meal would be like on a weekend. And I can also only imagine if the East Bay locations are better than San Bruno's and look forward to checking those out some time.
Either portions seemed a tad bit small (not as dinky as Zen Pen's circa 2006), or the food was so delicious that we gobbled up more, but we sampled quite a bit during lunch
Steamed Egg Custard Bun (Fung Wong Gum Sa Bao) - under "chef's recommendations" on the checklist menu. The bun looked beautiful on the outside, almost like an elegant wider cupcake. The inside was similar to lau sa bao, but was a tad thicker and rougher in texture. Sweetened salted egg yolk center filling, which could have been better.
Veggie Tofu Skin Roll (Seung Soh Fu Pei Guen) - this is under the "fried/baked" section, and ordered by mistake, initially thinking it was the typical version in bamboo steamer. This is basically just deep fried yuba roll with diced up veggies inside (with prominence in mushrooms). Unbelieveably crispy exterior (a tad bit oily) with a soft juicy and delicate interior. This was a super big hit, and finally glad to have found a place that actually does a deep fried item well and to perfection. Wanted to order a 2nd plate, but alas varieties had to be tried.
Dried scallop turnip soft cake (yiu chue lor bak goh) - brilliant rendition, although I would have preferred it pan fried longer till nice and brown on the outside. Great daikon flavor, unlike places that don't put that much and try to thicken it up with starch powder. This is the beauty of check mark sheet dim sum, they bring it out once it is done (generally cooked to order) and better quality control.
Chicken Feet in Abalone Sauce (Bao Dzup Fung Jow) - almost went for the deep fried + steamed version, but wanted to eat a lil healthier so settled for this more expensive "special" item. Blanched or steamed chicken feet, marinated in and sitting in a bowl of superior broth containing abalone. The chicken feet had a light yellow brown hue to it, and were on the crunchy side, perfect "QQ" texture to those who like Hakka Taiwanese style "Lu" (marinated) pig feet or chicken feet. I would have preferred the feet cooked a little more, but overall this was a very interesting rendition. The sauce broth was excellent.
Steamed BBQ pork bun (cha xiu bao) - very decent, although on the small side. Nice lean diced cuts of cha siu with a soft bite, with seemingly more meat than bun (ratio wise). The buns were a tad bit on the mushy side from the steaming, but a more carefully controlled process (along with making them slighly bigger with more dough) would have been near perfect
Mixed mushrooms noodle roll (Dzap Kwun Lai Cheung Fun) - unbelieveably stellar! The mushrooms were not your typical abalone mushroom, shitake or what not, but closer to nameko (Japanese style), basically the kinds you can buy at the Chinese and Japanese supermarkets. These juicy mushrooms, paired with an excellent cheung fun sweet soy sauce, rolled in well steamed thin and smooth cheung fun skins, made for an unforgettable experience. Even if the Culinary Wonderland president (Chef Shun Fung himself) were not in the kitchen, he would be proud that quality is being maintained, and that the natural essence from the ingredients are shining through.
Malaysian cake (ma lai go) - best to let it cool before eating, or else you'll be eating moisture from the condensation.
Pig Feet Ginger (Ju Gerk Gerng) - this was not on the dim sum checksheet, but was offered by the pushcart lady (along with an insanely fragrant daikon beef tripe, where the daikon smell was strong in a great way). This is a very old school remedy for nurturing nursing moms (first month after birth), where ginger slices are marinted in black vinegar (and other ingredients) for upwards of a month, then this magic sauce is used to stew pig feet. AP's version comes in a small bowl with mostly ginger chunks, maybe 3 to 5 pieces of chopped pig feet, and a hard boiled style marinated egg (where the yolk got brown to the point beyond recognition in some areas). Very unusal to see this at a dim sum restaurant, but at AP it was a pleasant surprise.
Another thing of note, adjacent to the fish tanks was a table with various portable gas stoves cooking upwards of 6 different items for the dim sum specials. These range from the strange to the bizzare (at least for most folks). Also when you are brought to your table, in addition to the checkmark bill (where the dim sum ladies issue a stamp to keep track of your orders), there is a separate sheet of special items, dubbed "mei sik dong" or "gourmet stall".
The list translated:
- Pig's blood cubes with chives (gow choy ju hung)
- Curry fishball with pork rinds (reproducing the 80s HK street food snack pushcart vendor food) (ga lei yu daan ju pei)
-Chiu chow style bitter melon soy bean pork ribs (Chiu Sik Leung Gwa Wong Dau Pai Gwut)
-Chiu chow style salty veg and pork stomach (Chiu Sik Haam Choy Dzum Ju Toe)
-Clams in spicy broth
-Chinese herbal chicken stew (I can't even pronounce the herbs...)
-Blanched book tripe (Ba cherk Ngau Pak Yeep)
-Blanched goose intestines (Ba Cherk Ngor Cheung)
-superior broth shui gow dumplings (Seung Tong Shui Gow)
-Dried citrus peel duck (Chun Pei Ngap)
-Daikon with beef tripe
-Chicken Feet in abalone sauce
-Pig Feet Ginger
-Yeung Ji Gum Loe (a HK/Singaporean fusion dessert consisting of mango juice, mango pudding, pomelo, sago, coconut milk, evaporated milk...did not try but this is a common dessert staple at the fancier HK dim sum restaurants, wondering who does the best version, then again it's obviously better in HK with great mangoes from the Philippines that can't be beat)
Best of all no serious MSG after effects, or virtually none at all. This visit trumped Foster City ABC's best effort on a weekend (when they were on the upswing), and ditto for Koi Palace (2007 summer visit).
Sadly the Chrysanthemum tea did not have as much flavor, then again I haven't had great Chrysanthemum tea in a while.
Also noted that the lunch menu (ie the fold out laminated piece) that contained the congee/noodles/rice plates also had some "Shun Tak" specials, although strangely virtually all deep fried related offerings. Shun Tak is a region in Guangzhou, apparently very famous for certain dishes (e.g. Leng Yu fish steamed with tofu underneath, paired with fish balls made from the body), so for Culinary Wonderland/AP (and arguably where Chef Shun Fung is from?) to offer something of the sort, is quite a nice addition indeed.
But bottom line, AP/Culinary Wonderland is doing a bang up job emphasising the freshness and natural flavor of ingredients, the simplicity of the food, without relying on grease, MSG (at least not in heavy amounts like other places), and achieving refinement as well as some healing properties (in some dishes). Excellent refined Cantonese is all about eating well, but also eating right (and healthy), so I hope this place keeps it up. There are tons of interesting special dishes adorning the upper walls by the fish tank, hope to try those out at some point too.