Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Shadow of Hong Kong: The Highs and Lows of Cantonese Cuisine at Elite Restaurant (Ming Liu Shan Zhuang) (Dinner)

Out of all the styles of Chinese cuisine found in Southern California, perhaps the most popular would have to be Yue Tsai (Cantonese cuisine), or more specifically Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine (note the huge "seafood palaces" spread out across the San Gabriel Valley packed to the gills on weekends - during the day (for Dim Sum) and night (for celebratory dinners (wedding banquets, parties, etc.)). My encounters with various Hong Kong / Cantonese seafood restaurants have been a blur of awe, curiosity and excitement, entering these huge restaurants full of large fish tanks filled with live seafood, bright lights and loud banter.

Years ago, NBC Seafood and Ocean Star were two of the most popular examples of this cuisine, but as they started to decline, a new wave of restaurants started to appear that had a modern / updated twist on the classic dishes, not only for Dim Sum, but also for the dinner menu. Currently, Sea Harbour and Elite Restaurant (Ming Liu Shan Zhuang) represent two of the fanciest and most talked about Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants. While I was able to catch up on writing about Elite's daytime Dim Sum menu, it wasn't until today that I was able to finally gather my thoughts about the popular dinner menu.

(Note that this article is a reflection of all of my ~10 or so visits over the years. In addition, the Chinese names of the dishes are written to try to be as pronunciation-friendly as possible (thanks to my SGV Hounds for the help in translation :).)

One aspect that Elite Restaurant prides itself on is the fine-dining aspect of Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. From the name (in both English and Chinese), to the hardbound menu and high-quality paper stock, down to the chopsticks (and prices), Elite is trying to establish a certain quality and ambiance.

A good Cantonese / Hong Kong seafood restaurant's greatest strength is usually in their live seafood offerings. Most of these restaurants stock a wide variety of creatures of the sea, from live Lobster and Crab, to the freakish looking live Geoduck and more, and Elite is no different.

One of my all-time favorite shrimp dishes (in any cuisine) would have to be Cantonese-style Bai Zuo Hsia (Boiled Live Shrimp), which sounds deceptively boring, until you take the first bite and have the absolutely delicious sweetness from giant Shrimp that were alive just minutes earlier overwhelm your taste buds. (^_^)

Be sure to call ahead, as their Live Shrimp tends to sell out quickly, but when they have it, it's been consistently great, and it's no surprise: Super-fresh Shrimp, flash-boiled, and then served with a side of a blend of Soy Sauce, Green Onions and Chili that's all wok-fried to bring the flavors together. Just a light dab of the Bai Zuo Hsia in some of their magical dipping sauce, eaten with some steaming Rice, and it's perfection! :) The Shrimp is *so* fresh and the meat is firm, truly meaty, and still supple (these Shrimp were alive just minutes earlier), with a natural sweetness that makes them better than Lobster in many ways. Outstanding!

Our second dish arrives soon after: Shu Zi Zhen Yu (Steamed Seabass with Pickled Seed). The dish sounds delicious and we are anxious to try it, but taking the first bite reveals slight freezer burn in the fish, with the Seabass tasting really flat, slightly mushy and just a little off. The Pickled Seeds add a nice tartness to balance the mild saltiness from the sauce, but the lack of freshness in the Seabass really ruined the dish.

The next dish is something that's risky to order from a Cantonese / Southern Chinese restaurant: Jing Du Pian Pi Ya (Peking Duck). While there may be some Cantonese / Hong Kong restaurants that can make a Peking Duck that rivals Quanjude and other Beijing establishments, Elite unfortunately isn't one of them.

Elite's Peking Duck is basically a standard Cantonese-style Roast Duck with its skin slightly more crisped up, but nothing like a traditional Beijing-style Peking Duck. On the two occassions that we ordered Elite's Peking Duck, some parts of the Duck Skin were dried out, other pieces had too much fat on them, and the Duck meat itself tasted old (about 1-2 days old). Very disappointing, but it was my own fault for ordering a Northern dish at a Southern restaurant.

Thankfully things bounce back nicely with their Dah Di Yu Bao Lu Sun (Pan Fried Asparagus with Minced Fish and Wine Sauce). While the individual pieces are a bit large for my tastes, the Asparagus is fresh and perfectly wok-fried with chunks of Dried Fish, Garlic and Green Onions. The Asparagus is cooked through to just-tender and the Rice Wine Sauce is light and fragrant.

But then their Sheng Tsai Ge Song (Minced Squab with Lettuce Cup) reverses the trend again, with an extremely salty pile of diced Squab meat that is so overcooked and dried out that it could've been beef jerky chunks and I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. One of my SGV Hounds nods in agreement; we couldn't finish this dish.

Finally, their Jin Gu Yao Zhu Wen Yi Mian (Enoki Mushroom with Abalone Sauce on E-Fu Noodles) arrives to close out the dinner.

E-Fu Noodles are a bigger, flatter version of the standard Cantonese-style thin egg noodle, made from wheat flour. Elite's version is spot-on, with a soft, airy version that has just the right amount of firmness in texture to prevent it from being completely mushy. The Chinese Chives and Black Mushrooms complement the E-Fu Noodles and the Enoki Mushrooms nicely.

As is tradition in many Hong Kong / Cantonese restaurants in So Cal, every guest is presented with a complementary dessert (unless you order one of their more elaborate ones from the menu). On this visit, we were presented with a delicious Bai Mu Er Hong Shu (Tremella and Sweet Potato) dessert. The Tremella soaked up the rock sugar and natural sweetness from the Sweet Potato, making the dessert a lightly-sweet finisher without being too cloying.

On another visit, we arrive just as Elite opens for dinner and settle in to try some more items.

We begin with one of the more eye-catching names on the menu: Pan Lohng Qie Zi (The Dragon's Eggplant). When it arrives, it is striking and unique: Two large Eggplants have diagonal incisions made in them, stuffed with fresh Shrimp Paste and broiled until the Eggplant has just begun to blister. The fresh violet flower is a nice touch as garnish.

Breaking apart a small piece reveals a perfectly broiled Eggplant, soft and fluffy and then taking a bite brings the whole illusion crashing down: The Dragon's Eggplant turns out to be coated with a very disappointing, overly cloying Sweet & Sour Sauce(!). My guests and I are perplexed: Sitting at one of the better Yue Tsai restaurants in L.A., and one of their signature dishes turns out to be a badly, oversauced, sickly Sweet & Sour Eggplant. :( Oh well.

Next to arrive is their Hua Diao Zwei Jian (Clams with Wine Sauce).

The Clams are delicious: A fresh brininess pervades every sip of the broth with the Clams and they match well with the Luo Buo (White Radish). Sadly, the rest of their vegetables reflect a cutting of corners: Their Carrots, Cucumbers and Canned Mushrooms all taste extremely flat to the point of almost "stale," sucking the vibrancy out of the fresh Clams and the rest of the broth.

Thankfully, Elite's Hsien Yu Ma Ti Zheng Rou Bing (Steamed Minced Pork with Salted Fish) turns out to be another hit. This rustic, down-to-earth family dish is a welcome part of the menu, with a rich, savory, rough-minced Ground Marinated Pork topped with Salted Fish (warning: the fish is extremely salty and should be enjoyed in tiny morsels with a generous bite of the Steamed Pork and some steamed Rice :).

On another visit, we begin with their Jin Yin Dahn Shang Tahng Doh Miao (Pea Tips and Two Flavor Eggs with Soup). One of the best parts of Chinese cuisine in general are the large varieties of vegetables that aren't seen in too many other cuisines. The Da Doh Miao (Snow Pea Tips) are very fresh and still the proper ripeness (sometimes you get Snow Pea Tips at restaurants that turn out to be too stringy / old). We couldn't really taste any of the "Two Flavor Eggs" which was a slight disappointment, but otherwise the Snow Pea Tips are tender and delicious with notes of Garlic.

The Suan Hsiang Hsien Tsong Zhu Pai Bao (Pork Chops with Garlic Onion Sauce) continues the trend of good dishes with large, meaty chunks of Pork Chops (cut into thirds) that are first deep-fried and then sauteed with Black Vinegar, Onions, Garlic and Soy Sauce amongst other seasonings to create a slightly tart, piping hot dish with the perfect crunch while still being coated with the Garlic Onion Sauce. Delicious. :)

Finally, their Suan Hsiang Tswei Zhu Shou (Crispy Pork Legs with Garlic) is another house specialty that everyone in our group is looking forward to.

The Crispy Pork Legs are deep-fried and coated with flecks of deep-fried Garlic. It sounds like a winning combination and for the most part, it is: The Pork Legs are fried to an extremely crispy state, and eating the crispy (yet still moist underneath) Pork Skin with little bits of meat is a guilty pleasure and very fragrant. Unfortunately, even with the deep-fried Garlic bits, this dish lacks flavor: It's surprisingly straightforward, with just the taste of deep-fried Pork Legs and little else, tasting almost salt-free.

We end this meal with their Si Mi Lu (Tapioca Dessert), which is a delicious dessert made with Small Tapioca and Coconut Milk, which turns out to be just like their previous dessert: Lightly sweet, but never overpowering. A nice way to end the evening.

On another visit, our waiter confidently insists that we try one of their better house specialties, so we acquiesce and order their Yeh Hsiang Tswei Pi Ji (Elite Crispy Coconut Chicken).

From the menu description it sounds like it would be different from the typical "Crispy Chicken" found on many Cantonese menus. When it arrives, it turns out to be... just like the typical Crispy Chicken dish that we had hoped Elite would differ from. Strangely, there was zero hint of Coconut in any piece that we ate, and to take matters worse, the Chicken tasted really old (at least 1-2 days old), with a really flat taste. For a "fine dining" restaurant like Elite to serve poor quality Chicken like this is an utter disappointment.

One of the more (in)famous dishes at Hong Kong / Cantonese restaurants would be Sea Cucumber. I'm not sure how I got over the texture, but for many people outside of Asia, the first encounter with this gelatinous creature turns out to be a "texture violation" of sorts, with some people unable to get over the savory jello angle. :)

Elite's Jian Rou Jiang Bao Ci Shen (Pan Fried Sea Cucumber and Clams) uses a good quality Sea Cucumber - a bit firmer and with more chew than the more commonly found versions - sauteed with Clams, Soy Sauce, Green Onions, Ginger, Garlic and Sugar Snap Peas. While the Clams and Sea Cucumber work, the large chunks of Ginger and the Sugar Snap Peas really clash with the rest of the dish. The Sugar Snap Peas are undercooked, tasting almost raw, and really interrupt the flavor combinations whenever you bite into one while enjoying the Sea Cucumber. The dish overall turns out to be too disparate.

The final dish of the evening has a beautiful, lyrical name: Oh Duan Hsi Lian (Pan Fried Lotus with Pork). Elite chose the Chinese name based off a famous ancient Chinese proverb with the four Chinese symbols referring to when a Lotus Root breaks, it's still linked together by very thin strands, and it's used in reference to when a couple's relationship is over, but they're not completely separated (one may still try to seek out the other after the breakup, etc.).

Whether intentional or not, the interplay between the Lotus Root, Chinese Chives, Ground Marinated Pork, Green Onions, Garlic and Ginger are just perfect. With each bite, there's a beautiful textural contrast with a bit of the crumbly but moist Marinated Ground Pork and the crunchiness of the Lotus Root, and there's a real flavor that *lingers* with you no matter what part of the dish you're eating, almost as if each part were truly still interconnected somehow. All-in-all, a nice, light dish.

There was one visit where we had to entertain a good friend of a friend from Shanghai. Conferring with the waiter, one of my SGV Hounds tells us that the waiter strongly recommends the Qian Lohng Yi Pin Tang (Qianlong Superior Soup), named after Qian Lohng Huang Di, one of the most famous Emperors of the Ching Dynasty. It arrives in an ostentatious soup bowl, and the waiter carefully serves each of the guests with a bowl of this soup.

The Qianlong Soup turns out to be Shredded Pork, Shark Fin, Sea Cucumber, Fish Maw, Dried Abalone and Black Mushrooms in a Chicken Stock. Unfortunately, the soup tastes like it was flash-boiled and cooked for all of 15 minutes or so. Besides the Shredded Pork and Black Mushrooms, most of the other ingredients are pretty light in flavor or just flavorless, so the Soup base is vital. Here, the soup tastes more like salted water with barely a hint of Chicken stock, and the individual pieces of the soup as listed above. If a simple, two-person operation like Izakaya Bincho can make their soul-warming Zousui (Chicken Porridge Soup) from scratch when you order it, surely a fine-dining place like Elite can rise to their own high standards and make a decent Soup base? As it was, this was another disappointment. :(

(On a side note, the guest of my friend from Shanghai (who also travels a lot to Hong Kong and loves Cantonese food) confided in us later that the soup would have been laughed out of town if they tried to serve this in Hong Kong.)

We continued with one of the dishes off of their Specials menu (whose Chinese name escapes me at the moment): Pork Chop with Dried Plum Sauce. Similar to the Pork Chop with Garlic Onion Sauce, this dish takes the same principle of first deep-frying the Pork Chop pieces, and then sauteeing them with the dish's principle sauce. In this case, it's a sauce made from Dried Plums, giving the dish a salty, slightly tart flavor, with just a hint of a Meizi (Plum) flavor.

Like the Boiled Live Shrimp dish, another standout, all-time favorite dish from Cantonese cuisine would have to be Ching Zheng Yu (Steamed Fish), Cantonese style. And like the Boiled Live Shrimp, Elite did not disappoint here either: Ching Zheng Jia Zhou Hohng Bahn (Steamed California Red Cod), using a live Red Cod fish. As is tradition in many places, after we choose the weight / size of the fish, the waiter brings out the live fish for us to inspect and make sure that we're OK with it. :)

As simple as it sounds, there is almost nothing I'd rather have than a perfectly steamed fresh fish (live just minutes before), prepared Cantonese style, topped with a wok-fried Light Soy Sauce, Green Onions and Cilantro. The Light Soy Sauce gives just the right accent to the tender, utterly fresh Red Cod, with beautiful spring notes from the fresh-cut Green Onion slivers and Cilantro. The taste is absolutely delicious and brings a smile to my face. (^_^)

We try another interesting dessert on this visit, with a Longan, Red Date & Chicken Egg Dessert Soup. The Dragon Eye fruit and Red Dates are fine, as are the Goji Berries in the sweet soup, but the Chicken Egg is just... odd. Imagine eating a hard-boiled egg in a sweet liquid and you have the idea. :)

On the most recent visit, we begin with arguably the most famous and infamous of Cantonese / Hong Kong dishes: Shark Fin Soup. Specifically, we try their Hohng Shao Da Bao Chi (Braised Shark's Fin). Usually, Shark's Fin Soup (and Bird's Nest Soup) is reserved for celebratory situations due to their high cost, in this case it's $42 per individual bowl. We were originally going to try their best Shark Fin Soup - Crab Meat with Sea Tiger Shark's Fin - at a whopping $69 per individual bowl, but the manager (surprisingly) mentions that unless we really want the Crab Meat, the "high-quality soup base" (translated) is the same in both versions, so we go ahead with the Braised version.

Each bowl is brought out with full, slightly exaggerated opulence, with a gold metal stand to hold the individual bowl, and an individual heat source to keep the soup warm while eating it (complete with gold spoon as well).

Unfortunately, all the presentation in the world can't cover up the failed execution: Elite's Braised Shark's Fin Soup is a completely bland mess. For those new to Shark Fin Soup, Shark Fin is essentially made out of cartilage and has almost no taste. So for a traditional Shark Fin Soup, the quality, purity, and very foundation of the dish has to come from an outstanding Soup Base. Without it, and you're left with what we experienced at Elite: A cheap, rushed Chicken stock that tasted artificially thickened with Corn Starch possessing no real depth of flavor. The Bean Sprouts and Chinese Chives (both served raw(!)) clash with the rest of the dish even more, making the whole experience really unpleasant. The actual Shark Fin tasted decent (without any grittiness or coarseness found in lower quality Shark Fin), but everything else in the dish was so bad that it ruined the dish.

I realize it may not be a fair comparison to the Shark Fin specialists that my dear osananajimi (childhood friend) took me to in Taipei and in Hong Kong when we traveled across Asia a few years ago, but even the cheapest version of Shark Fin Soup at some of the local "not fine dining" Hong Kong / Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are better than this version, which doesn't come close to the focused, purity and glory that were the Shark Fin Soups at those aforementioned places in Asia. Simply terrible! :(

At this point, I collect myself and look forward to the next dish, always hopeful that it gets better. And it does: Their Tai Ping Hsien Lohng Hsia Mian (Live Marine Lobster with Egg Noodles) arrives after the waiter let us select which of the live Lobsters we want from the tank. :)

As with the other live seafood dishes, the pure freshness from eating a Lobster that was live just minutes earlier is something that gives Hong Kong-style Cantonese seafood cuisine such a compelling and winning angle. The Lobster is perfectly sauteed with Green Onions and Ginger; the Lobster meat is just cooked through, and the pairing with the Egg Noodles is perfect, with the Egg Noodles absorbing the sauce from the Lobster on top. Excellent.

We finish with their Lu Doh Tahng (Mung Bean Dessert Soup), which is a milder, more earthy version of the more commonly found Red Bean Dessert Soup.

At many Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, one almost expects mediocre service as part of the meal, but at a place that bills itself as fine-dining and tries to push the "high-class" angle in all facets of their persona, Elite Restaurant falls a bit short. On good days, the waiters will promptly swap out your plates with new ones whenever your current one starts to get full or too dirty. They come by and check to see if you need more hot water for the table's tea pots without the customer asking, or are observant the moment you need something and are about to gesture. But on off days, the service does a complete 180-degree turn: We had some visits where we had to gesture and try and track down any waiter for minutes at a time. Our plates were never swapped for clean ones, etc.

Prices can vary drastically due to Market Price for the Live Seafood. Beyond Market Price, most dishes range from $6 up to $180 (for a Whole Roasted Suckling Pig), with most dishes falling into the ~$15 range. The Live Seafood can also have a bit of a sticker shock, so be sure to ask ahead of time how much a particular item will cost. For example, on one visit last year, we were in the mood for a nice Steamed Fish using one of their Live Fish in the tank. On that night, they only had Live Australian Cod - just flown-in from Australia the night before - at $56.50 per pound, with the smallest Cod being at 2 pounds. I'm all for fresh seafood, but at $113 for 1 dish, it gets a little ridiculous. The Live Jumbo Shrimp is priced at $32 per pound, and the Live Lobster is ~$23 per pound. On visits when we didn't have any live seafood, we averaged about ~$25 per person including tax and tip, but when factoring in live seafood or Shark's Fin Soup, etc., it ran considerably more, up to ~$80 per person (including tax and tip).

Elite Restaurant (Ming Liu Shan Zhuang) represents many highlights and problems with the state of Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine in L.A. The biggest culprit is their inconsistency in quality of their dishes across the menu. Some dishes shine - most notably anything using their Live Seafood such as their Bai Zuo Hsia (Boiled Live Shrimp), Ching Zheng Yu (Steamed Fish (using Live Fish)) - while other dishes are complete disappointments (like their Peking Duck and Crispy Coconut Chicken). The saddest part is that many of their problems could be rectified if the back of the house took more pride in their cooking and had better quality control. Beyond that, some of their dishes and recipes just need to be dropped or revamped.

While I only experienced the brilliance of Hong Kong for a brief amount of time during my whirlwind vacation through Asia, all of the Hong Kong Cantonese style restaurants that I was fortunate enough to try surpassed the experiences I've had at Elite so far (with the exception of live seafood dishes). Although it may sound like I'm really down on Elite, their daytime Dim Sum is excellent, and there are still some good dishes on their Dinner menu. It's just that after trying the cuisine in Hong Kong, Elite feels like a fleeting semblance of that brilliant concentration of culinary deliciousness.

Rating (Dinner): 7.0 (out of 10.0)

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

Hours: [Dinner]
7 Days A Week, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Charlie Fu said...

I concur with you on their price of seafood, it's ridiculous. They have to be the most expensive cantonese seafood restaurant when it comes to Live Fish.

My friends and I used to visit there often for our wine dinners (yay! no corkage) but the price started to get out of hand. We'd like the managers pick our food and we'd get average fish for $40 a fish, pretty stupid.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for the thoughts. Yah, besides the Australian Cod that we skipped that day, every time we ordered Live Fish it was about ~$40 - $50 per fish.

pleasurepalate said...

Thanks for the comprehensive review. I've only been to Elite once for dim sum, but was curious about their dinner service. If I do make the trek there for dinner, I'm definitely going to keep your suggestions as guidelines for the meal.

suvro said...

I have been going to Fish Market (Valley a few blocks west of Rosemead) for fish. It is a giant fish market that sells only fish and fresh seafood, nothing else (besides a few bundles of scallions and a few pounds of ginger). I was there on Sunday (3/22) to buy fresh sea bass for Shanghai style steamed fish.

I noticed the Australian fish were in the $30-40 per pound range, whereas all other live fish was much cheaper. I asked the main person (since it was not terribly crowded and he was not that busy) why these were so expensive. He mentioned they are flown in once a week in water from Australia, and even in Australia, apparently these variants are expensive (they had spotted skin). I asked who buys them - and he said mostly individuals who appreciate this particular fish and have the big bucks, but he also mentioned on occasion the restaurants do buy them! Must be what you experienced.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Thank you. :) Let me know if you end up going; I hope you enjoy the visit.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi suvro,

Interesting information. Thanks! If a wholesale fish market is selling them for ~$30 per round and Elite is doing $56.50 it's a decent markup, but if it's closer to $40 per pound it's not so bad (but still pretty expensive). Good to know.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writeup, as always!

The "pork leg" is actually the pig's front feet (zhu shou or pig's "hands"). A popular way to eat it from a Cantonese perspective is to deep fry it with garlic. The results can vary. Personally I prefer a Taiwanese stewed version in soy sauce and herbs (lu ju jiao).

Does the red cod remind you a wee bit of kinki or kinmedai nitsuke?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi KK,

Thank you. :) I've had the Taiwanese version a few times (thanks to my friends introducing it to me :).

The Red Cod only a little. While I like Kinmedai Nitsuke, the Hong Kong / Cantonese style of Steam Fish preparation is one of my weaknesses - just absolutely delicious in a different way! (^_^)

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