Since I drive from the Westside to SGV for my dim sum fix, I am always eager to avoid any bad dim sum experiences, but in the interest of culinary exploration I managed to tear myself away from NBC to give Sea Harbour in Rosemead the ol' college try. After all, it's SGV. How bad can dim sum get in SGV? Especially at a place like Sea Harbour whose merits abound in glorious praise from numerous CH's.
When I walked in, I was pleased with the physical nuances of the resaurant and this gave me great hope. The ambience far surpasses any other "authentic" Cantonese place I've been to. I especially appreciated the lighting and dishware. They clearly had put more thought into the aura of the place than your usual Chinese haunt, and for me a little of that can go a long way. Regardless, the food still comes first. I really, really, really, wanted to like this place. I was a bit thrown off by the lack of any English-speaking staff, and my expectations of "English-speaking" in such establishments are not high at all. I do know how to get by in some Cantonese food-speak, but some of the dishes were unfamiliar to me, so I had to avail myself of the staff. We ordered a sticky rice in lotus leaf concoction. From what I remembered about this dish, it usually comes with some sort of minced pork or chicken inside, but the menu didn't state this and I wanted to confirm with the manager who walked by our table before ordering. When I pointed to the picture and asked what was inside and repeated the question several times, he struggled with "meat". I proceeded to ask what kind of meat, and he was clearly at a loss. He started with several different utterances and I decided to put him out of his misery and quickly ran down the basics. "Chicken??" He shook his head no. "Pork???" He nodded his head vigorously and replied "pork". Believe it or not, he actually fared better in mustering up an English reply than any of his staff.
On to the food.....I liked that the sticky rice came in 3 individually wrapped pieces instead of one big lump. This was our first dish. In general I am not crazy about this dish. I rarely order it and didn't have much to compare it to, but it was a decent start that showed promise for what was to come.....BUT, all that promise did was set me up for a precipitous fall. The shu mai was a strange, whitish color and rubbery. The har gouw looked so much better than it tasted. The morsels were bright orange and white and delectably plump and nearly burst at the edges. It was a cruel trick because when I sunk my teeth into the darn things, all I can say is that something was missing. There were whole shrimps inside. Now, I am not one to generally complain about whole fat shrimps, but har gouw filling to me is ground up shrimp (sometimes with various other things added in) and this is what gives its bouncy agglomerated texture. When I bit into these, the whole shrimps just sort of fell apart. It wouldn't have been so bad but the things just didn't taste very good. They tasted, well, really "ocean-y" if that makes any sense at all. I don't remember much about the skin of the har gouw, but I do recall not being impressed. It was too dense or something. It didn't have that pillowy effect against my teeth. The biggest disappointment was the har cheung fun. The wrapping looked dried up like somebody had pumped up the cheung fun and then let the air out of them and left them to shrivel in exposure. They looked like wrinkled sacks of shrimp (which again had a powerful "ocean" taste). The wrapping provided none of the playful, glutinous fun I expect from this dish and the sauce was overly savory in my opinion and lacked that hint of sweet aftertaste. The biggest surprise was that they don't offer pan friend turnip cake, only the steamed kind. That was a first for me, and I've been to many dim sum places! We tried the steamed variety and I can say without hesitation that the fried kind is superior. The center of the steamed one hadn't quite set yet and it lacked the blackened, smoky, crispy skin of the fried version. I was ready for the experience to be over but hoped that our final dish of eggplant topped with shrimp paste could save the day. After all it isn't a stretch to say that a restaurant is as good as its last dish. Let me just say though that it was par for the course. They call it shrimp paste, but it's more paste than shrimp. Nothing about the topping smacked of shrimp (in stark contrast to the overly powerful taste of the shrimp in the cheung fun and har gouw). Even the color was off. The paste was the color of, well, paste. It was bland and gray and tasted, well, bland and gray. I didn't care much for the denseness of the eggplant either, but that could just be a personal preference thing since I don't think I've ever eaten Asian eggplant before, and this is perhaps how they come.
All in all, it was a huge letdown. I can say that the ambience, service, and decor went a long way in not making the whole experience a huge bust. I'm glad I went and got to know first hand what everyone raves about. I really must be missing something. I went back to NBC the next day and can roundly say that every dish was far superior to Sea Harbour. Could it be me?? Are patrons perhaps just taken in by the clean and bright neatness and detail of Sea Harbor as opposed to judging it solely on the taste of the food??? Say it ain't so, cause I expect a lot more from my fellow chowhounds. It sure was busy that day, so Sea Harbour obviously has its loyal fans, but I can't count myself among them. Next up, 888......