Chinese New Year Feasting at Millbrae’s Asian Pearl
Asian Pearl in Millbrae was the site of the last of our Chinese New Year’s feasts. This banquet was Monday of last week, and the place was packed nonetheless. Unlike our experience at the Fremont branch of Asian Pearl, we had trouble getting our waiter to explain the dishes on the special new year’s menu to us. He tried to upsell us to the sharks fin/abalone set for a party of five, which held no interest for us. After getting nowhere, I asked for a supervisor, and “Alan” Yu Lin came to our rescue. Alan patiently reviewed the Chinese menu with us and made recommendations. By this time, we’d been trying to order for more than half an hour and I was so mentally exhausted, I forgot to serve the wines I’d brought. Anyway, on to the food, here’s what we ordered:
Double delight BBQ platter, $15 - We picked the crispy pork belly and the bbq pork cheek. The crispy pork belly had a finely bubbled skin with more airy crispness than the example we had a Fu Lam Mum in Mountain view. The bbq pork cheek, cooked char siu style, was excellent too with buttery, meltingly tender texture with just a bit of bite on the edges. The cheek or jowl surpassed the version we had at Koi Palace.
Chicken bones, pork butt, sea coconut, double boiled soup of the day, $18 – Our waiter had recommended this one, and it was great. The liquid portion alone was ladled out, and then the bones, boiled meat and herbs in the tureen were strained onto a plate for nibbling. The golden yellow stock was intensely chicken-y with many subtle nuances from the herbs and slices of sea coconut.
Sauteed pea shoots with crab and pumpkin sauce, $18 – We’d loved the pumpkin sauce on the scallops in Fremont so much, we decided to try another prep here. However, what’s called pumpkin sauce in this dish was a completely different thing, a thick mucoid slurry of stock and egg whites studded with crab and orange bits that tasted like grated carrots to me. Yes, it looks like vomit, but was quite delicious though I might challenge whether there was any pumpkin in this. My brother commented that the pea shoots were cooked a degree or two more than the usual, and he preferred them this way.
Braised fish belly, $25 – From the new year’s menu, our waiter recommended this highly. For this hong siu-style dish, a slab of fish belly on the bone (with crispy fin bones and all) was fried and then braised in a heavy brown gravy. The many elements of this dish also included whole cloves of roasted garlic, fresh shitake and other Asian mushrooms, hunks of roast pig, and more. The gravy was so concentrated, I found this preparation stultifying in combination with the rich, fried fish belly flesh. Nothing wrong with it, but I couldn’t enjoy more than a couple bites of this dish.
Stir-fried fish paste with milk and egg whites, $13 – This dish didn’t work for us. I’ve had similar preps elsewhere, and the texture of the egg whites was much fluffier and less curd-like here. The textures of the fish paste and egg whites were too close together and with such muted flavors, the sprinkle of roasted pine nuts became the most interesting thing on the plate. Which is to say, there wasn’t much of interest in this dish taste or texture-wise. I would like to order this at one of the group’s other restaurants to see if this is simply an execution problem here.
Dried oysters (ho see) and black moss (fat choi), $16 – Also from the new year’s menu and recommended by our waiter, this was the biggest disappointment of the night. This dish was outstanding in Fremont, and here barely so-so. The sauce was not as well-constructed or infused with oyster flavor and lacked the spongey slabs of pork belly. This only had about a third of the fat choy used in Fremont. The oysters themselves had little flavor, and we question whether they were actually dried. They tasted and looked like canned oysters with my sister pointing out, “they’re gray and you can still see the dents from where they were compressed in the can.” The presentation was also less attractive, although my brother conceded, “you can only do so much in arranging a hair ball.” The one positive thing we can say is that the cooked Romaine lettuce heart base was better than the iceberg used in Fremont.
Thick noodles with abalone sauce, $13 – In Fremont, we had loved this dish and were eager to have it again. For something this simple, execution is everything, and Millbrae’s kitchen does not have the touch. The noodles lacked the silky toothsomeness, and the sauce was saltier and not as interesting. The plating was also messy. And, to add another insult, the price is $3 higher here than Fremont.
Here’s our order ticket in Chinese.
Millbrae’s Asian Pearl turned in a mixed performance service and foodwise. Since both the Fremont and Millbrae restaurants involve a drive for me, the extra attention, lower prices and quality at the newer Fremont store are worth the extra miles and bridge crossing.
Peninsula Asian Pearl
1671 El Camino Real, Millbrae, CA 94030
Fremont Asian Pearl
43635 Boscell Rd, Fremont, CA 94538