Friday, May 30, 2008

Elite Restaurant (Lunch): Quality Chinese Dim Sum in LA!

Recently, I've realized that there are quite a few "comfortable restaurants" / "comfortable cuisines" that I've overlooked, either due to them being so routine or just taken for granted. One such "comfortable cuisine" would probably be Chinese Dim Sum. Being a So Cal native, I was lucky enough to grow up with family or friends who would take me along on their trek to the San Gabriel Valley, and partake in this eating and drinking event. I was taught by my Chinese friends all about tradition and how it's really called "Yum Cha" or "Ying Cha" (depending on the dialect), and enjoying various Teas along with some light, little dishes, ranging from savory to sweet.

Over the years, we've seen the downfall of the great, traditional Hong Kong Dim Sum restaurants like NBC and Ocean Star, and the rise of a new trend of fancier, unique, cutting-edge Dim Sum restaurants, where the small plates can consist of a chef's wild take on traditional recipes. Currently, I find two restaurants to represent the best of this cuisine: Sea Harbour and Elite Restaurant, both in the San Gabriel Valley.

Due to the enormous popularity of this cuisine, the traditional Hong Kong / Cantonese Dim Sum restaurant is all about preparing and cooking huge batches of the various small plates; it's not "fine dining" by any means, but the key to a good Dim Sum restaurant is quality of ingredients, consistency, and price. Elite and Sea Harbour have stepped over the price category to focus on a marked increase in quality of ingredients and consistency (they generally make smaller batches, and make many items to order, instead of having them pushed around on carts).

At Elite Restaurant in Monterey Park, the Dim Sum is generally very good quality. For this meal, I grabbed two of my Dim Sum Hounds and we arrived nice and early, to beat the crowds. (Note: Apologies on my botched Chinese romanization; I'm no expert on the language. (^_~))

Our choice of Tea this outing was Tieh Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy), which cut through the oil nicely.

We started with one of the classic Dim Sum dishes, Shao Mai, fancifully named as Yao Zhu Gan Zhen Shao Mai (Pork Shui-Mai), which is Steamed Marinated Ground Pork with Shrimp "Dumpling," topped with Capelin Roe. Elite's version is excellent as usual, with *two* good-sized Shrimp inside each Shao Mai! It has more Shrimp per Shao Mai than Sea Harbour, but I feel it's just too much Shrimp and not enough Pork. At times it feels like I'm eating a Hsia Jiao (Har Gow) because of so much Shrimp. :) I prefer Sea Harbour's version, but Elite's is still very good and fresh.

Next up is the Bai Hwa Zha Liang Chang (Crispy Shrimp Rice Noodle) (badly translated and named), which is taking a Yoh Tiao (fried dough, like a Chinese cruller), and wrapping it with long sheets of rice noodles. Elite's version has consistently been excellent (if a bit oily, inherently), with a nice smooth consistency for their Rice Noodle Rolls, and a clean-tasting Yoh Tiao inside. Their newer takes on this traditional dish are also good, such as the Shrimp with Asparagus Rice Noodle.

Continuing along, we order one of Elite's fancier / new-style Dim Sum dishes: X O Jiang Bao Luo Buo Gao (Pan Fried Turnip Cake w/ X.O. Sauce). This was our first time ordering this dish here (my various Dim Sum Hound friends always order other items and we never get around to ordering it, until today). By the menu's description (and I confirmed this with the native speaker in our group), these Turnip Cakes should've been the "crispy" variety, where it's pan-seared with a nice outer crust, and moist on the inside. Instead we got the steamed variety of Luo Buo Gao, and the whole dish was a giant mushy bowl of Turnip Cake slivers mixed with their seafood-based X.O. Sauce. It was competently done, but too much of a texture violation for me. :)

Continuing along, we ordered a traditional staple of Cantonese cuisine: Pi Dahn Shou Rou Joh (Congee with Pork and Preserved Egg). This is a nice comfort food, and Elite's version is well done, except for their Pork. The Shou Rou they used today was disappointing, tasting really old and really chewy. The Thousand Year-Old Egg is fine and the actual consistency of the Congee is great, but Sea Harbour is definitely better in this category.

Feeling a bit blase about the usual Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gow), we decide to go with a variation of it: Jiou Tsai Hsien Hsia Jiao (Vegetable & Shrimp Dumpling). Despite the "dumpling" moniker, this Cantonese / HK version uses a different type of skin than the usual dumplings, and the inside is basically a Har Gow with the Chinese vegetable Jiou Tsai. Elite steamed it perfectly, and the skin is tender and not dried-out. The huge chunks of Shrimp and Jiou Tsai vegetable blended nicely to make another great dish, consistently good in all our visits.

Next up was another traditional dish, Bao Yue Zhen Zhu Ji (Sticky Rice Lotus Leaf Wrap) (badly translated on the menu). This is actually Nuo Mi Sticky Rice encasing Chicken and a variety of other ingredients, wrapped in a Lotus Leaf. Elite's version includes a piece of Abalone(!), showing off their nice spin on traditional dishes. While it sounds good on paper, in execution, I've never been a fan of Elite's version of this dish. The Abalone is a lower-grade Abalone and it's overcooked, so it becomes a big piece of rubbery badness. In addition, Elite has followed the trend of pre-wrapping the contents in a piece of parchment and then wrapping the parchment with the Lotus Leaf. Sadly, this blocks and limits the amount of Lotus Leaf flavor that seeps into the rice (traditionally the rice is wrapped directly with the Lotus Leaf). The end result is a very heavily sauced (too much) block of Nuo Mi with a rubbery piece of Abalone. The flavor combination in the sauce (hints of Oyster Sauce and Soy Sauce and other ingredients) overpowers the Chicken and Rice. I prefer Sea Harbour's version.

Another nice option that Elite offers (that many Dim Sum places don't) are the various Clay Pot Rice dishes. I've had mixed results with this dish at Elite, and today was no different. We ordered the Hwa Gu Huang Mao Ji Bao Zi Fan (Chicken & Mushrooms Claypot Rice), and the instant it came out I could already smell the problem: It was burnt already. This isn't steam in this picture, it's *smoke* from the burning rice along the edges!

We quickly separated as much of the rice from the edges of the burning hot Clay Pot as possible and dug in. Due to the burnt rice, the smoke pervaded every bite of our dish, basically ruining it, sadly. Elite seems to have a problem delivering this dish out early enough before the rice is already beyond searing (and instead, burning).

We finished up with two Dim Sum desserts, starting with Elite's version of the Egg Custard Tart: Au Men Pu Dah (Macau Egg Custard). This is probably one of Elite's best dishes: Consistently good, it's a creamy egg-based Custard, warm and wonderfully rich, wrapped in a light, flaky pastry outer shell. Definitely better than Sea Harbour's version.

The second dessert, sadly, was the worst dish of the day: Lien Rong Jien Jwei Dwei (Sesame Ball). Basically this is a ball of dough with Lotus Paste filling, deep fried, and rolled in Sesame Seeds. When done right, it's delicious, but Elite's version has been disappointing: It came out cold, and the Lotus Paste was starting to solidify. The entire taste and texture combination was horrible, even the currently downgraded NBC and Ocean Star make a better version.

One other thing that should be noted is that the service was really bad today, even by normal Chinese restaurant standards. No one changed out our plates even once (usually busboys / waiters will swap out your plates whenever it gets too messy / piled on with bones, leaves, unwanted items, etc.). And getting the attention of the waitstaff was a major chore (but this is only for Lunch / Dim Sum). For Dinner, I've consistently had great service.

Overall, our total came out to ~$21 per person. The average price varies greatly depending on what you order, and on average since Elite rose from the ashes of New Concept (the former restaurant), I've averaged in the ~$20+ range; definitely on the pricey side for Dim Sum.

Elite Restaurant (Chinese name, Ming Liu Shan Zhuang) is one of the most popular Dim Sum restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley today. With arguably the nicest ambiance of all the Dim Sum restaurants, and a focus on quality and some interesting variety, Elite Restaurant serves great quality Dim Sum. I prefer the taste, recipes, and quality at Sea Harbour over Elite, but both of these restaurants represent the best Dim Sum in Southern California.

Rating: 8.9 (out of 10.0)

Elite Restaurant (Ming Liu Shan Zhuang)
700 South Atlantic Blvd.
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Tel: 626-282-9998

Dim Sum Hours: (Mon-Sun) 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.


eileen1675 said...

The turnip cake dish looks yummy, but a little mushy.
I am so craving for dim sum now....

Tian said...

Are you sure the burnt rice wasn't supposed to be guo ba?

Thats usually how its eaten. Korean bibimbap is a variation on this.

ExileKiss said...

Hey Tian,

Hehe, yes I'm very familiar with Guo Ba. (^_~) Trust me, the rice was severely BLACK BURNT, it made the dish nearly inedible.

I have good Guo Ba consistently (and some great Korean restaurants with their Clay Pot Rice (paired w/ their Tofu Clay Pots); Elite just screwed up, sadly.

neverfull said...

i have visited elite once and ordered the same claypot which came out with burnt rice. we sent it back b/c the smoke pervaded the whole dish so we couldn't eat any of it. the manager tried to convince me that that was how it was supposed to be served but comped it off our tab anyway.

i'm visiting LA next week and have been reading through your blog posts. i'll give sea harbour a shot when i'm there b/c of your review. (i was going to return to 888 which i enjoyed before.) i was not impressed by elite much except for the chicken cartilage dish which i have never had before.

i love your blog. thanks for the hard work. hope you'll check mine out if you are ever in houston.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi neverfull,

Thank you! :)

Re: Elite - yah, that's definitely not right (burnt rice), and it's unfortunate they tried to pawn it off as "correct" (it's not). It's supposed to be crispy, seared, and just a *touch* burnt in a few places, but not pervading the whole dish.

I hope you enjoy Sea Harbour, please report back if you do go. I'd love to hear your thoughts! :)

Thanks for the info on your blog: it looks wonderful, classy and helpful! (^_^) I'll be sure to reference it the next I'm in Houston.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin