August 21 might go down as the day where dim sum finally came into focus for me. The epiphany occurred at Koi Palace, a restaurant from Willy Ng that’s situated just off the 280 freeway in Serramonte Plaza and draws diners in droves, especially on weekends, when the hostess station is routinely 20-deep. However, they’re so systematic in their approach that the wait and aggravation were minimal, and if you order the right way, the dishes are bound to arrive hot and at peak flavor. Basically, they’re running a dim sum clinic, and considering the amount of culinary control they demonstrated, on the plate and off, it would be hard to imagine improving upon the experience.
Twin lion statues frame an arch leading to a water wall stenciled with Koi Palace’s namesake fish. The interior is highlighted by an atrium and a koi pond filled with swimming mascots, but before you see the visual payoff, wait up front by big tanks of seafood. Wait to hear your number, which is conveniently listed on a flat screen in columns of 1-3P, 4-6P, 7-9P and 10+P, completely eliminating the need to ask how much longer it will be until a table pops free.
We received an important dim sum lesson by accepting a passing woman’s offer of BBQ pork slices ($5.80). Fatty slabs of red-rimmed pork appeared with firm, sweet baked soy beans and sweet mustard dipping sauce. The dish was fine, but would have been a lot better if it was hot. Who knows how long that woman traversed the dining room, hunting for a willing diner. From that point on, we ordered directly from an attentive server using the checklist menu, which resulted in consistently hot, fresh-from-the-kitchen dishes. Cart dim sum can be fun, since it’s impossible to know what’s bound to appear next, which builds anticipation, but the food is never as fresh and hot as when it arrives via checklist. From now on, the checklist will be my modus operandi during dim sum.
Pork buns in clay pot ($5.80) arrived sizzling with scallions and onions. It was surprisingly minimalist for a clay pot, but the bao were very good, seared to brown on the outside, with crumbly dough that was flecked with pork, jackfruit and ginger.
Peking Style Steamed Chive and Pork Dumplings ($4.80) sported thicker skins and arrived a little too wet. They once again came with garlicky vinegar soy sauce. This was the least rewarding dish. You’re better off getting what are ostensibly the same dumplings in a more interesting form.
They also sell big ticket items you won’t find everywhere else, but may or may not be worth the price, including, black truffle shu mai, Szechuan style surf clam, jumbo prawn sautéed with vermicelli and pumpkin sauce and whole Maine lobster steamed dumplings and fried claws, which were pretty spectacular during my first visit to Koi Palace about a decade ago, but also cost more than $30.
Apparently we aren’t the only Koi Palace converts. The owner has two different restaurants – Koi Garden and Just Koi – at the Ulferts Center in the far East Bay hamlet of Dublin – and another Koi Palace inside Thunder Valley Casino, which resides north of Sacramento in Lincoln. It will be interesting to try the spinoffs, and if they’re anything like the original, it would be good to see Ng continue to preach the gospel of good dim sum and service in Northern California.