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Dim Sum Disappointment at Sea Harbour in Rosemead...

Since I drive from the Westside to SGV for my dim sum fix, I am always eager to avoid any bad dim sum experiences, but in the interest of culinary exploration I managed to tear myself away from NBC to give Sea Harbour in Rosemead the ol' college try. After all, it's SGV. How bad can dim sum get in SGV? Especially at a place like Sea Harbour whose merits abound in glorious praise from numerous CH's.

When I walked in, I was pleased with the physical nuances of the resaurant and this gave me great hope. The ambience far surpasses any other "authentic" Cantonese place I've been to. I especially appreciated the lighting and dishware. They clearly had put more thought into the aura of the place than your usual Chinese haunt, and for me a little of that can go a long way. Regardless, the food still comes first. I really, really, really, wanted to like this place. I was a bit thrown off by the lack of any English-speaking staff, and my expectations of "English-speaking" in such establishments are not high at all. I do know how to get by in some Cantonese food-speak, but some of the dishes were unfamiliar to me, so I had to avail myself of the staff. We ordered a sticky rice in lotus leaf concoction. From what I remembered about this dish, it usually comes with some sort of minced pork or chicken inside, but the menu didn't state this and I wanted to confirm with the manager who walked by our table before ordering. When I pointed to the picture and asked what was inside and repeated the question several times, he struggled with "meat". I proceeded to ask what kind of meat, and he was clearly at a loss. He started with several different utterances and I decided to put him out of his misery and quickly ran down the basics. "Chicken??" He shook his head no. "Pork???" He nodded his head vigorously and replied "pork". Believe it or not, he actually fared better in mustering up an English reply than any of his staff.

On to the food.....I liked that the sticky rice came in 3 individually wrapped pieces instead of one big lump. This was our first dish. In general I am not crazy about this dish. I rarely order it and didn't have much to compare it to, but it was a decent start that showed promise for what was to come.....BUT, all that promise did was set me up for a precipitous fall. The shu mai was a strange, whitish color and rubbery. The har gouw looked so much better than it tasted. The morsels were bright orange and white and delectably plump and nearly burst at the edges. It was a cruel trick because when I sunk my teeth into the darn things, all I can say is that something was missing. There were whole shrimps inside. Now, I am not one to generally complain about whole fat shrimps, but har gouw filling to me is ground up shrimp (sometimes with various other things added in) and this is what gives its bouncy agglomerated texture. When I bit into these, the whole shrimps just sort of fell apart. It wouldn't have been so bad but the things just didn't taste very good. They tasted, well, really "ocean-y" if that makes any sense at all. I don't remember much about the skin of the har gouw, but I do recall not being impressed. It was too dense or something. It didn't have that pillowy effect against my teeth. The biggest disappointment was the har cheung fun. The wrapping looked dried up like somebody had pumped up the cheung fun and then let the air out of them and left them to shrivel in exposure. They looked like wrinkled sacks of shrimp (which again had a powerful "ocean" taste). The wrapping provided none of the playful, glutinous fun I expect from this dish and the sauce was overly savory in my opinion and lacked that hint of sweet aftertaste. The biggest surprise was that they don't offer pan friend turnip cake, only the steamed kind. That was a first for me, and I've been to many dim sum places! We tried the steamed variety and I can say without hesitation that the fried kind is superior. The center of the steamed one hadn't quite set yet and it lacked the blackened, smoky, crispy skin of the fried version. I was ready for the experience to be over but hoped that our final dish of eggplant topped with shrimp paste could save the day. After all it isn't a stretch to say that a restaurant is as good as its last dish. Let me just say though that it was par for the course. They call it shrimp paste, but it's more paste than shrimp. Nothing about the topping smacked of shrimp (in stark contrast to the overly powerful taste of the shrimp in the cheung fun and har gouw). Even the color was off. The paste was the color of, well, paste. It was bland and gray and tasted, well, bland and gray. I didn't care much for the denseness of the eggplant either, but that could just be a personal preference thing since I don't think I've ever eaten Asian eggplant before, and this is perhaps how they come.

All in all, it was a huge letdown. I can say that the ambience, service, and decor went a long way in not making the whole experience a huge bust. I'm glad I went and got to know first hand what everyone raves about. I really must be missing something. I went back to NBC the next day and can roundly say that every dish was far superior to Sea Harbour. Could it be me?? Are patrons perhaps just taken in by the clean and bright neatness and detail of Sea Harbor as opposed to judging it solely on the taste of the food??? Say it ain't so, cause I expect a lot more from my fellow chowhounds. It sure was busy that day, so Sea Harbour obviously has its loyal fans, but I can't count myself among them. Next up, 888......

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  1. Wow - that dark cloud came out of nowhere... Sorry to hear about your seemingly horrid experience at Sea Harbour. Our last visit there was quite the opposite - clear skies and a great dim sum experience. And my standout dish was the eggplant - fluffy creamy eggplant with its top stuffed with a blush pink shrimp paste... It sounds like some of the things you didn't like because of personal preferences, but If you were dissatisfied with any of the dishes in terms of freshness, I would have sent it back...

    Your great experiences at NBC are my black clouds, based on my last three visits there... there were certain dishes where the chicken's taste reminded me of a bleach-based cleaner - they were inedible. We haven't been back since. We figured three times and the same result is more than enough to convince us that something was not right...

    1 Reply
    1. re: bulavinaka

      I'm with bulavinaka on this one, but I can understand why NBC and Sea Harbor are both still alive and kicking. NBC is solidly grounded in the old school dim sum world; Sea Harbor is an LA pioneer in nouveau dim sum. There are plusses and minuses to each, but personally I prefer Sea Harbor (though it is unbelievably annoying of them not to have pan fried daikon cake).

    2. Sorry to hear about your experience. I haven't eaten at Sea Harbour for years, but my wife has recently and commented that while the food was just not what she had expected because it was dimsum that was different from what she was used to. She thought it was expensive for what she had eaten, but said she would try it again more for the novelty of different riffs on dimsum. She's from Hong Kong and says that NBC has the closest Hong Kong Cantonese flavor of any of the dimsum she's had in L.A. so far, which includes the biggies like Elite, Triumph Palace, Kitchen, and Mission 261.

      2 Replies
      1. re: cfylong

        I can completely appreciate your wife's point on NBC. I had enjoyed their dim sum for years... But in my mind, while attempted to duplicate a cuisine to its original authenticity has its merits, I personally appreciate the level to which places like Sea Harbour have taken Southern California dim sum. This in itself says alot. Maybe with NYC and SFO being vaguely in the same epicurian hemisphere for dim sum, I think that the places you mention like Elite, Triumphal Palace, etc., bring a note to fine dining in Chinese cuisine that will be challanged only by places in Asia. To me, NBC has the soul of so many things Cantonese, but its style has been idling for decades. I think many in the SGV felt the need to focus on the aspect of style, on finer dining - the missing piece to the puzzle that would complete the picture for this ritual of eating enjoyment. Its almost like a fitting tribute to a complex and varied cuisine that deserves much much more praise and respect.

        I can only hope that the OP's horrible experience at Sea Harbour is an abberation with a generous sprinkling of personal preference... to have alot of style and no soul would leave us with alot of dreams unfulfilled...

        1. re: bulavinaka

          I wouldn't classify my experience there as horrible, per se. Overall, I thought it was mediocre. Nevertheless, the only thing that I thought could've been related to personal preference was the eggplant itself, since I'm accustomed to traditional western eggplant. I believe everything else I wrote was a fair assessment though completely unrelated to personal preference. True, I'm kind of take or leave it on the sticky rice in lotus leaf, but in all honestly it was probably the most well-executed dish I had that day at Sea Harbour oddly enough. It's still possible that it was just one of those days, because truthfully I've had bad to mediocre experiences at both NBC and Ocean Star, which generally have solid offerings of their dim sum menu in my experience. I used to go to Ocean Star all the time and they never faltered until I took visiting relatives there one day and every single dish we ordered was godawful. It was so traumatic I never went back despite my previously delectable visits there. So, I guess I'd say I'm on the fence about Sea Harbour, but disappointed this time for sure.

      2. I think the other hounds have hit the nail on the head. When you go to a place like Sea Harbour, Elite, Mission 261 etc., you go for the nontraditional dim sum items that are delicate and made with interesting ingredients. Indeed, I wouldn't think about ordering too many traditional items at these places because it is unlikely that they would be worth the premium you have to pay.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Chandavkl

          I thought I had an interesting, novel experience at Sea Harbour, not necessarily a good one though, and if I go again, I won't even be able to re-capture the novelty (which rescued me the first time), so I'm a bit averse to trying it again. Sometimes, different is just different and not better (like the steamed daikon/turnip cake, HUGE thumbs down). I don't know. I still think that any dim sum place worth its salt should be able to pull off the traditional items, at least passably anyway; otherwise why even bother with them? I really wasn't turned off by the price point too much. I was turned off by the taste.

          What types of interesting dishes at Sea Harbour are you referring to, Chandavkl???

          1. re: hch_nguyen

            Sometimes I don't remember what I ate where, but at Sea Harbour I seem to recall abalone tofu skin, minced beef with fried egg, some kind of peanut dessert and shark fin dumpling in broth. Never had anything like these at Ocean Star or NBC.

        2. I think the problem is your expectation is different. For one, good har gow is normally made with bigger pieces of shrimp (normally I expect about 1+ shrimp, split in half), not minced shrimp. Minced shrimp is cheaper. If you want minced shrimp you will fare better with places that sells fried shrimp balls or shrimp paste coated crab claws.

          Don't know about cheng fun, as chinese ones are kind of different than the vietnamese ones. Maybe that's why you think they are 'wrinkly'. The wrapping isn't supposed to be overly thick, or chewy either. It's supposed to be tender and soft, with a slight elasticity. The soy sauce mixture on top is a little bit sweet, but primarily it's soy, so has to be more savory.

          They do have pan fried turnip cake, but I believe they are cut into smaller pieces and tossed with XO sauce and served on a fried noodle nest. I haven't ordered that for a while, and I don't really like their version anyway. For the best turnip cake I like the cheapo Yum Cha Cafe (my standard is soft, with chunks of turnip and good preserved meat flavor).

          Anyway, sorry you are disappointed. We all judges food differently, in my case it fits the good standard of Hong Kong style dim sum.

          5 Replies
          1. re: notmartha

            notmartha, I know what you mean by cheaper minced shrimp in the har gouw. I've had that kind, too, and I don't like it and this is decidely not what I was looking for or expected at Sea Harbor. I generally expect a very rough grind, but at Sea Harbour they were whole shrimps stuffed in a white skin, not ground and not split in half. They just took the shrimp and stuffed it in there. I'm not sure what you meant about my expectations being different. If you mean that my expectations were more traditional, then I guess maybe you're right. I still say that as far as taste goes, good is good, mediocre is mediocre, and bad is bad regardless of tradition or expectation.

            As for cheung fun, with most respectful regards of course, I am Vietnamese, but I don't think I gave the impression that I was comparing dim sum cheung fun to Vietnamese cheung fun. In fact, I don't even care for Vietnamese cheung fun and would take the Cantonese-style over the Viet style any day of the week. This is not intended to sound snippy, so please don't take offense. I think I've eaten cheung fun at enough dim sum places in enough cities to make a fair comparison without letting memories of Vietnamese cheung fun cloud my judgment. Plus, I really don't even think of the two dishes in the same vein. It's like comparing a New-York Style/Chinese-American eggroll to a deep fried Vietnamese Imperial roll (cha gio). There are some superficial similarities (both stuffed, deep-fried rolls), but they're two very distinct culinary entities. These cheung fun at Sea Harbor were shriveled, dry, and wrinkly, which really surprised me considering the amount of turnover they must have there. They were not tender, soft, or elastic as you very aptly put it. I'm not sure where I implied that I wanted or expected something thick or chewy because I certainly would've been displeased with anything of the sort. Now that I think of it, I've always found Vietnamese cheung fun to be extra thin and wrinkly. So, if I were looking to compare it to Vietnamese-style, Sea Harbour's version would have made a favorable impression and not a bad one. As for sweet and savory soy, that's exactly how I like it, savory with a hint of sweetness in the after taste, but there was no after taste.

            I didn't notice the pan-fried turnip cake you mentioned. There aren't any English descriptions, and I had a really hard time communicating with the staff. Although he was friendly, the manager could barely handle "pork", much less "smaller pieces and tossed with XO sauce and served on a fried noodle nest". It does sound worth a try though.

            I'm still glad I went. I still felt like it was a worthwhile experience just for the newness of it all and I liked their digs. I doubt it's enough to make me go back any time soon, but maybe one day....They have their fans, so they're doing something right. I just haven't figured out what it is yet. Maybe one day I will....

            1. re: hch_nguyen

              Hmm, I've always had whole shrimp in har gow, every place I've gone to. I've never had minced shrimp.

              1. re: hch_nguyen

                No, no offense taken and no offense meant. Just wasn't sure what you expected out of cheng fun. I didn't realize when you said shivel you meant dry. A lot times the noodles are thin so they kind of blanketed/draped the shrimp, I thought that's what you meant. It should never be dry. It's interesting though because I've never had dry/shiveled cheng fun in any of the dim sum places in my life (even the cheapo places), and I won't expect it at a cook to order place. Plus steaming has the opposite effect on noodles - most of the time the error is steaming too long and the noodle is soggle/wet/falls apart/mushy.

                I guess I can't comment on the language barrier as I do speak cantonese and can read Chinese, so that's never a problem for me. I did notice the problem with translation to English in a few dim sum places, not just Sea Harbour.

                Funny enough I saw a complaint about Yum Cha Cafe is that their har gow is made of ground/minced shrimp. I've never had minced shrimp (even rough ones) in har gows in any of the higher end dim sum places. Generally the more upscale/expensive the place the bigger the shrimp. That goes for shrimps used in har gow, cheng fun, stirred fried noodles, etc.

                1. re: notmartha

                  Go figure, that cheung fun didn't seem oversteamed. It seemed like it had been sitting around a while, which is quite odd for the turnover rate. To me, minced and a rough grind are totally different from each other. While they're similar, I wouldn't use them interchangeably at all in a description. To me the phrase "roughly minced" is an oxymoron. Minced is, by definition, an extremely fine grind. Regardless, even a "rough grind" (a phrase I used previously) is a bit of an overstatement to the way I like har gouw. I'm not even sure I would call it a grind at all, but I definitely don't expect whole shrimps, however, so that took me by surprise at Sea Harbour.

                2. re: hch_nguyen

                  Hey HCH, I don't know if you have any folks to go with who are fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese - usually either will work. Being that my wife is fluent in both, working out the subtlties at Chinese restaurants for me is never an issue - unless my wife makes a powder room run precisely at the time when the waitstaff appears ready for our order - then me, the blithering idiot blurts out, "sorry - more time, please..." In theory, I know it shouldn't be an excuse for any restaurant not to be able to communicate with its diners, but in reality, this is often the case in SGV. Our last visit to Sea Harbour was amazing, but as I scanned the tables and the line out front, not one non-Chinese was present except for me and our friends-in-tow. With that said, I think there can be alot that is lost in translation - literally. Not that this backtracks and makes your experience better, but I would think future experiences here and elsewhere (at least at the places less visited by "outsiders") in SGV might be better if you're lucky enough to have someone along who can work out some of the issues...

              2. Sorry to hear about your experience (esp. since I a long time fan of Sea Harbour).

                Sometimes an old shoes just fits better than a new one ...

                Cheers.