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Oct 30, 2008 12:26 AM

Wedding Breakfast at Zen Peninsula in Millbrae

The weekend’s wedding celebration wrapped up with a dim sum breakfast at Zen Peninsula in Millbrae. Starting at 9:30am on Sunday, the group filled 10 round tables lined up along the far wall or about one-third of the restaurant. At that hour the rest of the place was nearly desserted and we had the staff’s full attention for the first hour. By our designated ending time of 11am, there was a line waiting for tables.

I thought that dim sum in Millbrae was a brilliant pick for the farewell event. It was easy for out-of-town guests to check-in at SFO beforehand, join us at the restaurant, and then catch their flights afterwards. We had plenty of space to circulate and table-hop, and the kids could run around.

The hosts had ordered an initial selection of standards for each table, then the guests were free to select from the carts and the checklist for more. Service started before I arrived and I caught the end of my table’s first order. I chose more items that I wanted to try, and then ordered a third round when new arrivals joined us. Filling the table and ordering in three waves, I had a chance to try more items than I’ve ever ordered in one meal. And still there was so much more on the extensive menu that I wanted to taste.

The staff did a great job, serving and removing plates, and keeping the tea pot full. The cart ladies were smiling and attentive too. Our group overstayed the ending time, but the staff took it in stride, clearing off and reseating the tables as vacated. Until they actually needed the last two occupied tables for the growing crowd in line, there was no pressure to leave, which we finally did around 11:30am.

Overall, the quality of the food was quite high. Nothing was bad or even below average, and several items were so good and unique, I’d recommend making a special trip here to try them. Now, to answer the inevitable question of how Zen Pen compares with gold standard Koi Palace. Having been to Koi recently for dim sum, I’d have to say that Koi Palace is still king with more consistency and high quality across the range. However, if one orders well at Zen Pen and picks the best dishes, you can be equally satisfied here, plus enjoy greater comfort with far less hassle. Below I’ve listed everything our table ordered starting with the top picks.


Foie gras and shark fin pork siu-mai, $4.50 – As one tablemate described, “over-the-top”! Much better than my first trial a few years ago. Buttery soft and fatty disk of foie for an unctuous texture and mouthfilling flavor, plus chewy sharks fin adding texture to the meaty dumplings.

Conpoy (dried scallop) and pea sprouts rice crepes, $5.50 – Umami to the max, the briny sweet flavor of conpoy blended with the delicate crunch of the greens wrapped in a chewy rice crepe and doused with a delectable sweetened soy based saucing.

Sweet taro buns, $3.20 – These are the same soft-as-baby-butts sweet dough used for baked egg custard buns, but somehow even lighter and more tender here. Filled with sweetened taro puree, topped with bubbly sugar, and then served hot, I thought these were absolutely heavenly.

Egg custard tarts – My nomination for tops in the Bay Area. Scorched surface in the Macau style but going Portugal one better with the multi-layered flaky crust. These are deeper which makes for a lovely palate-coating mouthful of extra creamy, full-flavored custard lusciousness backed up by the crackly crust.

Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves, $3.80 – Perfectly toothsome pearly grains of sticky rice, succulent chicken, and a bonus salted egg yolk.

Zen's roast pork with peanut sauce, $5.50. Made with the pig jowl, the sweetest piece of the pig, this is honey-glazed, roasted, sliced thinly, and accompanied by powdered peanuts. Better than Koi Palace, but can’t beat S & T Seafood’s version.

Fried shrimp taro dumplings, $3.20 – Very frilly and tasty, but too oil-logged on the bottom.

Soft wonton in chili sauce, $4.50 – Wrapped sui gow style, very tasty saucing and thin fluttery wrappers, but the meat filling was too hard and thick.

Suckling pig rice powl (sic), $7.00 – Tasty with dark brown crackly skin, but the meat was not juicy and seemed reheated. About four strips arranged on a bowl of rice, nice to be able to order a smaller serving and not have to invest $17 for a taste of suckling pig.

Shrimp dumplings (har gaw), $3.80 – Whole shrimp inside were overcooked. Nice thin wrappers, not overseasoned.

Siu mai, $3.80 – Too much shrimp in the pork filling for my taste, but that’s just my personal preference.

Baked roast pork puffs, $3.20 – Delicate pastry but too damp on the bottom, good meaty flavor.

Fried milk, $5.50 – The milk custard center was stringy and grainy. Nice light batter though.

Sesame balls, $2.60 – Crust is way too thick.

Special crispy squab, $12.00 – Good flavor, but a little dry. Can’t compare to S & T Seafood in SF for this one.

Shrimp rice crepes, $3.80 – Again, the shrimp were somewhat cottony and overcooked. Somewhat meager filling compared to the competition, but not out of line once I saw the lower price for this dish. Nice seasoned soy sauce.

XO Sauce rice crepes, $5.50 – No searing on the rice noodle rolls, not thermally hot when I tried these, might fare better when warm.

Green tea sesame mochi, $3.20. Served hot with flowing black sesame centers, but the green tea mochi wrap was too thick and dense.

Missed Trying These:
Steamed barbeque pork buns, $2.60
Baked roast pork buns, $2.60
Chinese donut rice crepes, $3.80
Soy sauce noodles, $5.50
Poached Chinese broccoli, $5.50
Chiu chow steam dumplings, $3.20

Thanks for a terrific Sunday brunch and congratulations to the newlyweds!

Zen Peninsula
1180 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030

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  1. Those Macau-style custard tarts look fantastic! I must get out there for them some time soon!

    6 Replies
    1. re: manda

      They are fantastic and every other superlative adjective you can conjure up! According to the check-off menu that I kept, the custard tarts are only available weekdays though we were there and had them on Sunday.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        That would be so cruel if I went to Zen one weekend and those tarts weren't available!! That photo was so enticing, and I have never had the Macau-style all caramelized on top like that. I didn't even know they existed until now, so thanks for making me crave something that I was oblivious to before. Now I can't rest until I have one.

        You included prices for every item except the tarts; do you know Zen's pricing for those? Also, do you know if I can get good Macau-style tarts somewhere closer to the South Bay? Thanks for the detailed report and breakdown!

        1. re: Carb Lover

          Maybe we can lobby KFC to introduce them the way they did in China.

          1. re: Carb Lover

            Supposedly they stop making Macanese style tarts at noon on Sundays. And because they get snatched up so quickly once they come out of the kitchen, you better order them off the checklist.

            1. re: Carb Lover

              I shouldn't post after midnight . . . and here I am doing it again! The tarts are listed as $2.60 on the checklist, and I assume that's an order of 3.

              Sheng Kee bakeries make Macanese style tarts, but they can't compare to these. You might consider checking out the Portuguese bakeries in San Jose. Some are in Alum Rock, just across the freeway from Vung Tau. rworange, or maybe as one of her aliases, brought some natas to SF for a chowdown from SJ, check out her old posts. The Portuguese tarts I've had here (from the bakery in Rohnert Park) and in Porto don't have the multi-layered crust of ZP's, but the custard filling is really good and scorched like these.

              This was an unusual opportunity to try so many things at one sitting. Our table had 3 orders of the baked pork buns and 2 orders of the steamed ones, and they were wolfed down. I thought there'd be one left to take home for later. I'm sorry I missed out on a lot of things, couldn't eat that much or fast enough!

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Thanks, Melanie. I'm aware of those Portuguese stores in SJ and will look into it. I love the idea of the multi-layered, flaky crust w/ the scorched custard. Your post has also given me an intense craving for dim sum!

        2. >I’d have to say that Koi Palace is still king<

          Is that Koi Palace in Serramonte Plaza in Daly City?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Mick Ruthven

            Sorry, yes, I meant Koi Palace in Daly City. I forget that there are other locations now. I'll have to post about it as well.

            As far as to-go dim sum at Zen Pen, I would assume that anything can be packed to go. The catch is whether there would be any available when you walk-in. Many items are fired to order so you'd have a wait. Best to call ahead.

          2. >Egg custard tarts – My nomination for tops in the Bay Area.<

            Are they available for walk-in/take-out?

            4 Replies
            1. re: Mick Ruthven

              Just came back from their dim sum service. Based on Melanie's recommendations, I tried most of the items she listed.

              Foie gras and shark fin pork siu-mai - I personally loved this dish and by far was one of my favorites. I could eat 3 orders of this myself! Although the feeling wasn't mutual with my friends, I believe you need to like foie in order to really appreciate this dish.

              Conpoy (dried scallop) and pea sprouts rice crepes - This was nice. The pea sprouts were very nice, and felt like a good lighter dish compared to the other items we ordered. The only complaint was that I didn't get enough of the scallop flavor.

              Sweet taro buns – This was definitely a highlight. The bun surrounding the taro puree was soft, and the top offered a crisp contrast in texture. It was served hot, so everything came together perfectly. Thanks for the recommendation on this one!

              Egg custard tarts – Now that Golden Gate Bakery is no longer the best, I must second Melanie's statements about this Egg custard tart. Flaky and tasty crust, delicious custard. Our table of 4 went through 3 orders and only stopped because we had already eaten too much ><.

              The Zen's roast pork with peanut sauce - Definitely one of the overall favorites with everyone at the table. Just delicious in taste and texture.

              Steamed Pork Bun - Wasn't really anything special to me. Average.

              Sharkfin and pork wonton in broth - This was average. The wonton was a good size, sort of skimpy with the sharkfin, and the broth could have been richer. However, for the cost and overall taste, not a bad way to fill you up.

              Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves - A tad on the small size, but the flavor was very good. I can't give a better description than Melanie so I'll second her opinion of this dish. Doesn't this dish usually include Chinese sausage? If it does, I don't remember seeing or tasting it in here. Just my own preference to have it in there.

              The service was attentive and polite. There were a couple of times where we had to call the waiter and inquire about a couple of dishes that were ordered and hadn't come. I would come to this place again, and must give it points for offering new approaches and dishes for dim sum.

              1. re: Zinc Saucier

                Great notes, ZS, thanks so much for the report! You ordered top shelf. I appreciate the word on the sharkfin dumpling in broth, which is one of my favorite items where it's done well. I was regretting not trying it.

                If you don't mind, would you let us know the cost per person?

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  With tax and tip, it came out to over $35 a person. Needless to say, we ate a lot...

                  1. re: Zinc Saucier

                    Thanks for the data point. If you left happy, then it was worth cornering the market on custard tarts.

            2. After my two year-old memorized the book, "Yum Yum Dim Sum", we decided that we needed to take her out to try it. She can't eat shell fish yet, so that limited the number of shrimp-based dishes we could try. We got there a few minutes before 11 AM on Monday morning, and were seated right away, near the kitchen and with a great view of the entrancing fishtanks.

              One of the things I really appreciated was the pictorial menus, even though I've eaten dim sum many times, it was handy to have a visual reference for the paper ordering menu.

              Inspired by this thread we ordered and tried the following:
              Taro buns: These were excellent as the other posters have mentioned. Tender, succulent with a gorgeous sugar crunch on top.
              Egg tart: Unfortunately, they didn't have the Maccanese style tarts on a weekday; I still look forward to trying them. These were quite good, silky custard and flaky pastry.
              Siu mai: I really liked these. I thought the flavoring was good and, unlike Melanie, the shrimp to pork ratio worked for me. Nice and big too.
              Baked roast pork buns: One of the first things out of the kitchen, these little golden treats were yeasty, tender, and had a good meat/dough ratio.
              Baked roast pork pies: super flaky pastry and expertly spiced pork.
              sauteed bok choy with garlic sauce: This was not on the menu, but we thought we needed some greens. This was excellent, a big plate of tender, tiny bok choy with a light sauce. We ended up eating the entire thing, much to my surprise.
              Shrimp and chive dumplings: These were also really good. I thought the wrapper was a bit thick, so I discarded it and enjoyed the shrimp and greens filling solo.
              Spring rolls: Fine, nothing special. We ordered it because they are mentioned in the book, but they have shrimp so my daughter only got a bit of the wrapper.
              Sesame balls: I agree with the criticism, very very doughy. Also mentioned in my daughter's book, hence the order.
              Salt and pepper eggplant and tofu: This is probably the best fried dish I have ever had. I unequivocally recommend people try it, little soft, unctuous cubes of eggplant in a perfectly crisp batter juxtaposed with tiny fried tofu blocks, similarly crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. The whole combination topped with salt, pepper, chopped scallions and mild spicy red pepper. I loved it, so did my toddler and fried-food avoidant husband.

              The total was about 50ish dollars.

              Thanks to everyone for their posts, we had a great brunch as a result.

              1 Reply
              1. re: YSZ

                We must be related, as I often have a pile of discarded, thickish wrappers rimming my plate. Thanks for a great post, and adding to the intell on Zen's dim sum. Gawd, i wish I could have one of those taro buns right now! The salt and pepper eggplant and tofu sounds wonderful, will have to get that next time.

                And when one of those threads on "how to raise a chowpup" comes up again. you'll have to add "Yum Yum Dim Sum" to the recs. (ggg)

              2. Husband and I went to Zen Peninsula on Sat. for dim sum around 11:45am. It's kinda sad to not have more people but we were busy w/ random errands and nearby friends weren't available. I was surprised that we were seated immediately given that the wait at Koi Palace or HK Flower Lounge would be longer at this time. We were seated at a two top tucked between the kitchen doors and bar so we figured it was as good a spot as any.

                Before I get into the food, let me say that the service here was very efficient and responsive, some of the best service I've had at dim sum. The cart ladies were all smiles and had the patience to try to translate. Requested oolong tea was brought out quickly, and hot water was refilled regularly w/o asking. We ordered 4 items from the checklist, and everything was entered into the POS system and brought out to us at a good pace w/ no errors. I asked one hostess if the Macanese tarts were available and she said that I should just watch for them to come out of the kitchen. When they did, she came over to our table and gave me a heads up. This crew went above and beyond my expectations.

                That said, unfortunately the food did not live up to the service for me. We sampled:

                sweet taro buns
                Macanese egg custard tarts
                baked roast pork puffs
                shrimp rice crepe
                roast pork w/ peanut sauce
                chive & shrimp dumpling
                foie gras & shark fin siu mai
                salt & pepper fried eggplant & tofu

                It was quite a bit of food for us, so we took home some baked goods, the fried eggplant/tofu dish, and some roast pork. Total before tip was around $38. My favorite dishes were the baked goods. The taro buns were fluffy and tender, and the creamy taro filling was lightly sweet and velvety smooth. They came perfectly warm from the kitchen. They don't look particularly enticing at first glance, so I'm really glad that they were recommended here. The Macanese tarts weren't as beautifully bronzed on top as Melanie's, but they tasted good. Light and eggy custard filling gave way to buttery layers of puff pastry. Some of the best in their class.

                The siu mai were a big disappointment for me as I had high hopes going in. The ingredients just didn't taste fresh and the gritty foie gras had a very strong livery flavor that overpowered the overcooked shrimp and pork. This suffered from texture problems as well as poor execution and ingredient quality IMHO. Husband liked it a little more than I did, but not by much.

                The roast pork w/ peanut sauce was dry like it had been sitting under a heat lamp or in a warmer for too long. I thought it was too sweet on its own and the dryness and sweetness were improved w/ a dab of hot mustard.

                The chive & shrimp dumplings had nice thin wrappers, but only one dumpling (mine!) had shrimp in it. Husband got stiffed on both of his dumplings. I liked mine pretty well, but I agree w/ others who say that the shrimp is generally overcooked here. The shrimp rice crepe was not bad, but the shrimp were slightly rubbery and stiff.

                The fried eggplant and tofu was ok. I liked the crunchy savory bits of seasoning, and the fry job was good and greaseless. I just felt like it was missing an element (a light sauce of some sort?) to bring the dish together. The portion was generous though. The pork puffs were off tasting, and we didn't even finish them.

                Overall, we were disappointed w/ the food and wouldn't come back for dim sum especially since we like Koi Palace and HKFL much better. We much preferred the dim sum on our recent visit to HK Saigon Seafood Harbor in Sunnyvale. Driving to get to the 101 we saw The Kitchen which I believe has positive mentions on this board. Perhaps we will try that next time...

                Photos of some dishes:

                3 Replies
                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    Yep, your descriptions of the disappointments sound like food that has been under a heat lamp too long or reheated too many times. That's a shame. The first time I had the foie gras siu mai here when ZP was new, the liver component was too strong and gritty, both of which I associate with overcooking and melting away too much of the fat. It's been fine since then, but unfortunately, not on your day.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Yeah, we obviously came on an off day for the siu mai and some other dishes. Overall, the food seemed to lack finesse but was killed w/ the sitting around too long issue. The place was fairly full but never felt that bustling, and diners didn't seem to be loading their tables compared to other dim sum houses. I wonder if they excel more at wedding banquets and private parties...Those taro buns were delicious though...