We live a short walk from Joy Luck in San Mateo, where we used to be regulars, and we have been to Koi a dozen times. Since April this year, we've been making the drive down to Tai Pan in Palo Alto. I've wanted to post about it for some time now, torn between guilt at not sharing a delicious secret with my fellow hounds and apprehension of the disapproval that will probably arise from those who will take one look at the luxuriously appointed restaurant and the significant proportion of non-Chinese clientele and dismiss the place as inauthentic.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the eating has been very, very good indeed at Tai Pan, particularly since the owners (formerly of King's China Bistro on Daly City) hired back their old dimsum chef in March. There are no carts here--just a checklist--and the dimsum is cooked to order. The hargow, my dimsum acid test, are filled with plump, juicy, clean-tasting shrimp, and the wrappers are properly chewy and translucent. The cheong fun are silky, and thin enough to see the shapes and colors of the fillings inside. We also enjoy the fried turnip puff, with its delicate layered pastry wrapper. The chicken feet and pai kwat (pork ribs in black bean sauce) have always been tender, though their sauces could be a shade more robust. String beans with minced pork is very nicely done, the toothsome, sweet beans contrasting with the earthier minced pork. We've had the taro puff a couple of times, and it is typical of the fried foods at this restaurant: crisp, never greasy; the frying oil is more than anything else a vehicle to lighten the taste and texture of the food. Prices for dimsum range from $3.50 (for pai kwat and chicken feet) to $10 (for jook), averaging around $6.
Which brings me to a couple of non-dimsum favorites: the shanghai crab and the sampan lobster. The former is composed of dungeness crab legs, fried salt-and-pepper style, surrounding delicately scrambled eggwhites and crabmeat from the body. The sampan lobster (or sampan crab, if you prefer) is deep-fried maine lobster tossed with a goodly heap of fried garlic and a touch of chili. Either dish alone is worth a visit, and at $32 for either, is very reasonable.
Tai Pan takes reservations by phone and on Open Table--even for lunchtime on weekends. DH and I estimate a 25% -30% price premium for Tai Pan over Joy Luck, plus a 20-minute drive, but we believe that the quality of the food, the service, and not having to participate in a rugby scrum to get lunch are well worth the cost.
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