Thursday, January 21, 2010
Having grown up in Singapore and lived for years in Seattle, I’ve been spoiled by authentic regional Chinese cuisine ranging from Sichuan and Cantonese to Hong Kong and Chiu Chow. I eschew glow-in-the-dark sweet and sour pork and disdain the way-too-sweet General Tso’s chicken in many Chinese-American restaurants, so you can’t blame me for not rushing to try every Chinese restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula. But I can now say that I wish I’d tried Pacific Grove’s Dynasty Restaurant, an offshoot of the popular Santa Cruz spot, sooner.
When Eric Liu took over the failing Golden House Restaurant (which incidentally belonged to his uncle and aunt) last summer, he gave it a facelift, installing a horizontal window at the front of the restaurant to let in more light, plus an eight-seat bar. The ornate dining room beyond the traditional moon gate now boasts gold-flecked wallpaper rich with historical Tong Dynasty scenes, as well as a ceiling of red tiles carved with golden dragon reliefs. Everything, including the ebony dragon throne in the reception, intricately carved chairs and decorated melamine dishware, was specially imported from China.
On my first visit on Christmas Eve (the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner 365 days a year), I’m greeted by servers wearing elaborate robes and headdresses similar to those worn by Ching Dynasty royals.
The menu advertises Mandarin/Sichuan-style food but Liu mentioned the chef hails from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. A few Sichuanese specialties pop out here and there: twice cooked pork, boiling fish, ma bo tofu. A cursory glance through the menu also reveals the usual pseudo-Chinese suspects: won ton soup, Mongolian beef, almond chicken, chow mein and a few mu shu permutations.
The good news: They don’t use monosodium glutamate (MSG), an indispensable seasoning for many Chinese cooks to heighten umami. To me, MSG is merely a shortcut to mask poor flavors, and no substitute for good, fresh ingredients and proper stocks. Without MSG, there’s nowhere to hide.
My dining companion and I decide on some dishes that are a little out of the ordinary. We start with the corn soup ($6.50/small), a silky potage of corn kernels, chicken and delicate wisps of egg served in a heart-shaped bowl. Our server graciously ladles it into individual bowls and I happily sip on the light and tasty soup throughout my entire meal.
I have great expectations for the beef sizzling iron platter ($11.95). The sizzle is there but the flavor, unfortunately, is not. The stir-fried beef slices are brought out in a separate bowl with an assortment of vegetables from the kitchen and then poured onto the iron platter at our table. Though tender, the beef does not have the charred, smoky flavor my taste buds have encountered with other hot plate dishes, and instead comes off flat and oddly buttery.
The gan bian or “dry-fried” string beans ($8.95) are a marked improvement. Dry-frying is a technique that involves stir-frying the string beans in a little oil until they start to shrivel up and brown. A typical Sichuanese dish, Dynasty’s version is full-bodied, studded generously with garlic, ginger and dried chilies.
A few weeks later, we visit on the weekend to sample the dim sum specials, made in-house every Friday and served on Saturdays and Sundays.
As soon as we settle in, our server brings out steamed items on a cart piled high with bamboo baskets (I love the instant gratification of dim sum!). Lifting off the lids one by one, he patiently does a show and tell. The fried items are brought out on a separate tray.
The selection is impressive, with something for the uninitiated (barbecued pork buns) and the more adventurous (chicken feet marinated in brown bean sauce).
The Shanghai soup dumplings are delightful, savory liquid squirting out of the soft wrapper and mingling with tender minced pork in my mouth. Each shiu mai cup is packed with pork and mushroom. The fragrant glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves has tasty bits of meat and mushroom tucked into each bite of rice. The shrimp crystal dumplings, though, are a little rubbery.
As for the fried items, I don’t care for the battered and deep-fried pork-stuffed eggplant. The taro puff, however, has a crunchy crust that sinks into sweet taro a savory pork filling; and the deep meat ball was quite delicious, the pork filling encased in a sweet and chewy glutinous rice shell.
One caveat – if you don’t like pork or you’re vegetarian, you don’t have many options. The only vegetarian dishes offered are jade dumplings, leek dumplings and the dessert items (sesame balls and pineapple buns).
Be prepared for a small splash of sticker shock too. All the items cost between $4.50 and $6, pricey by any dim sum standards. Our party of five paid about $20 each. Living on the Monterey Peninsula, I have come to expect this. But even with the premium prices, the solid standards and personable staff give Dynasty a real chance to become a local’s favorite.