On Monday, December 30, two members of the North team plus Limster and I paid a visit to Koi Palace. On this quasi-holiday, it seemed that everybody else had the same idea and the place was a madhouse at 11:30 am like it is on Sundays. A number of parties arrived and then turned around when they saw the crowd its pretty discouraging when youre given #160 and theyre calling #39 to be seated. We called en route to get a number when the hostess desk opened and were assigned #57! I was expecting something more on the order of #10. Fortunately, Derek had arrived earlier and received #1. However, by the time we found parking (the restaurants own lot and streets were full), wed missed the first round of seating and had to wait. During this time in the overcrowded and noisy lobby, one customer completely lost it yelling at the hostess and the manager who intervened did a poor job of handling the situation.
Anyway, on to the food, we eventually were seated back near the bar, about as far away from the kitchen as you can be. Limster studied the specialty tea list and ordered An-Xi Tikuanyin tea ($2 per person) that we liked very much.
Prices were higher than most, plates were $2.40, $2.90 and $3.90, plus many specialty items with their own pricing. None of the items were subpar, and most were very good or better.
In the average to good quality category: siu mai were juicy but had too much shrimp dominating the chunks of pork, braised chicken feet were a little hard but had good depth of flavor, steamed spareribs were well-seasoned with fresh chilis and black beans but were too chewy, turnip cakes were too bland, and Teochew fun gor dumplings could have been spicier and more complex. Two unique and very good items were the spinach shrimp dumplings and a shrimp and banana roll. In the very good category: fried taro dumplings were more oil-soaked than some but the intensity and robustness of the filling compensated, fried bean curd rolls were stuffed with sweet and clean-tasting shrimp, and the har gow had see-through tender wrappers filled with whole shrimp and an excessive dose of MSG to boost the flavor. We found both the panfried chive dumplings with thin chewy translucent skins splattered with crisp golden blisters and the shrimp rice noodle crepe with a less tender rice wrapper but wonderfully succulent shrimp and well-turned seasoned soy sauce excellent to outstanding.
We had mixed results with the specialty items. The duck shred burrito, $6.90, was a couple slices of Peking duck crisp skin and meat pre-wrapped in a thick wheat flour pancake with garnishes. It was beautifully presented with an orchid on the plate, but fell down a bit for the skin losing its crackliness in this premade state and, for me, too thick and doughy of a pancake in proportion to the serving of duck.
We debated whether to order the whole crab meat Shanghai dumplings at $26.00, and Rochelle came up with the idea to test the dumpling maker with a trial order of the regular variety. She saved us a lot of money and disappointment, as the steamed Shanghai dumplings (xiao long bao), $3.30/4 pieces, were juicy and decent in flavor but the skins lacked the tenderness of the traditional Shanghai dough and were twice as thick as the ones wed had at Su Hong two days earlier.
Derek was eager to try birds nest for the first time, so we ordered the birds nest egg custard tart, $5.50/3 pieces. When Rochelle asked what this clear plastic-looking birds nest really was, Limster and I simultaneously responded, try it first, then Ill tell you. (gg) Derek and Rochelle eyed us suspiciously but were good sports and went ahead. They didnt flinch when we later explained that birds nest material was the saliva and regurgitated material that swallows use to plaster their nests. The birds nest had been soaked in a sugar syrup and then a thimbleful was layered on top of the custard tarts. We didnt really think the combination was that interesting, and the crust was softened by the wetness.
The plate of suckling pig, $15.00, has been the one item that would tempt me to break my boycott of Koi Palace. This is still the best that Ive had on this side of the Pacific. The meat is so tender and well-seasoned, the skin is thin and delicately crisp, and even the candied soy beans are better than anyone elses.
The quality of the dishes here made this a close contender for the Norths final battle. While the execution of the standard dishes was not as refined as the ultimate choice, everything was delicious and worth eating. And, the quality of the items that standout makes up for the few lapses. Theres tremendous variety to choose from, especially with the offerings from the barbecue station.
Where the restaurant fumbled badly was in service and hospitality. The gauntlet of the waiting area is daunting enough. Then, the room was the noisiest of any of our visits even though we were seated in the back away from most of the crowd. We had a hard time getting service for water or to order special dishes. There were lots of staff on the floor but they wouldnt make eye contact. Very few of the staff that passed our table the cart attendants, bus boys, supervisors, or waiter would even crack a smile. The dour group of wait staff and noise detracted from the experience.
Koi Palace offers many delicious dishes with creative flair in a robust style thats easy to appreciate. The key to satisfaction is to avoid the weekends and holidays when it will be more crowded and bring ear plugs. Also, remember to call for a number or reservation before you arrive to cut down on waiting time.
For other recent opinions, see David and Margrets comments in this thread - [BROKEN LINK REMOVED] .
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