Chowdown at Zen Peninsula : Report
Ten Chowhounds descended upon Zen Peninsula in Millbrae tonight in search of good eats, in particular Stuffed Chicken with Sticky Rice, this month's dish of the month. I'll make some notes about that dish once someone creates a subthread at this post (hint, hint):
When we were seated, they gave us a standard menu. There were also one-page Chinese-only menus that we never got around to translating. The standard menu was missing a bunch of stuff from the website, so we inquired and were given the set of their picture friendly dinner specials listed at: http://www.zenpeninsula.com/prod03.htm
They kept pushing the crab on us, but we declined. We ordered almost exclusively off the pictured menu. DaveMP was kind enough to document for me all of the dishes we got:
Zen's Roast Pork (pork neck) with peanut
BBQ Pork (char siu
)Marinated platter (five things including tofu; duck tongue; pork feet or snout)
Scallop in egg white
Eggplant w/ garlic in clay pot
Chicken stuffed w/ sticky rice
Lettuce in shrimp paste
Golden Kabocha fries w/ salty egg
Black sesame soup
Mango flavored mochi
The items I had a chance to eat on the marinated platter were all very good, and with an entire meal to get through, I think the nibbles it provided were a perfect size to split amongst 10 people. The standout item on the marinated platter for me and others was the duck tongue. Good flavor and firm yet not rubbery texture. The back of the tongue has a bone, but it's not a big deal. I'd had an unpleasant duck tongue experience at New Gold Medal a while back, so was happy to see this item can be excellent when prepared properly.
Great roast pork. It had a thick sauce interspersed with little (soy?) beans. Not sure if this was a mental thing, but the sauce reminded me a bit of baked beans!
Cysna had warned us that the scallop in egg white would be a subtle dish, and she was right. Compared to many of the complex flavored dishes, this one is all about the salt, egg, and texture. I'd recommend it, but you should be careful which dish to precede it with.
The lettuce in shrimp paste, at least the portion i had, tasted like braised lettuce in garlic sauce. No notes of seafood at all. It was a fine dish as is, but we were wondering if profiling lead them to skip the bulk of the shrimp paste.
The smoked seabass filet, at $35, seemed pretty expensive, but it was a really big piece. The piece I had was overbearingly salty, and in retrospect, might have been good if cut with some rice, which we hadn't ordered.
My favorite dish was probably the kabocha fries. The crust adhered well to the squash, giving a uniform and crisp chew to each piece. The salty egg yolk was excellent too. I'm not a huge fan of the sulfurous egg yolk flavor you get in things like dan tat (custard tarts), so the salty egg yolk was a special treat.
Upon request from the one Chinese person at the table, we were given a complimentary dessert, the mango flavored mochi ... and some plastic wrapped fortune cookies. He then asked why we weren't given the black sesame dessert they'd told us about earlier, so they brought that out afterwards. Good stuff, and not overly sweet way to end a fun meal.
It was great to finally connect, in person, with other Chowhounds. I had a really good time. I'd encourage other new community members to join the yahoo lists, and not to be shy about attending these events: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4691...
Thanks for organizing this! Well first I find it odd how ZP doesn't have any set family dinner menus, you know like $80 for 6 or $100 for 8...that kind of stuff, though there are many many banquet dinner menus offering shark's fin, etc. up to $1,000 per table. There were also not that many people. I think it's clear The Kitchen on the other side of El Camino has a more interesting menu and better chefs (plus it's open past midnight!).
Quick comments about some of the dishes:
The stuffed chicken got the salt-and-pepper treatment that K K explained, and so that wasn't right. I don't know if the chef was lazy or simply didn't know to make this dish. The rice was very boring too, with little of what I like in sticky rice, e.g., Chinese sausage. Traditionally a Cantonese crispy chicken should be cooked by hanging the bird and having the chef ladle hot oil repeatedly till it is fully cooked. Maybe no one would do this in the US, since labor is so expensive? If one dunks the bird into a deep fryer (the much easier way), the oil will go all inside the chicken.
The honey sauce in the barbecued pork was very thick, unexpectedly. Not sure if I particularly like or dislike that.
The egg white dish was good, but all the Chinese restaurants I've been to that offer this dish prepare it quite well. I think it's hard to mess up this dish. In addition to scallop, they had another seafood in this dish. Were they bits of lobster?
I actually think ZP prepared the three vegetable dishes quite well. The Chinese lettuce would have benefited from a bit more of the fermented shrimp paste. I don't think the eggplant was that greasy, or put it this way, unless the eggplant is simply steamed, if I order sauteed eggplant in a Chinese restaurant, there's gong to be a lot of oil absorbed by the eggplant. That's why I almost never order sauteed eggplant; I do make an exception when a dish includes eggplant stuffed with shrimp or fish paste though. ;-)
The deep-fried kabocha with salted egg yolk was excellent. Some restaurants turn up with very greasy kabocha, and fortunately ZP didn't.
The group wanted a seafood dish, and of course any Iive seafood from the tanks would be like oh la la $$$. I made the (wrong) suggestion and decision to order the smoked & baked sea bass, and boy did that chunk of fish come out so inferior to Koi Palace's famous edition. My piece was not that salty; maybe I did not eat enough of the outside which would contain more salt? It was overcooked, but fortunately the high fat content of the fish masked some of that.
Both the mochi and the black sesame sweet soup were light in the sense that they were not that sweet, which I personally like.
Hi Vincent, didn't know you were at that dinner until after the fact :-).
Crispy skin glutinous rice stuffed chicken is what they call in Hong Kong, an almost lost classic cuisine/art. While this dish is receiving and enjoying immense popularity in the last 5+ years in HK (thanks to people trying to preserve and promote disappearing food culture in a stressful and changing political and economic landscape), it is true what you say that not many people know how to do this correctly, and the new generation / current crop of chefs, might not really understand the process clearly since they have no true frame of reference or a master to learn from locally. Thus I'm skeptical of other seafood restaurants that claim to offer this dish with advance notice (including The Kitchen or Asian Pearl type restaurants) since 1) not many people preorder this dish for them to get it right and 2) likely the chef has no experience to little of what to really do.
With that said, I still don't fully understand why the salt pepper batter fried verison exists in SF Bay Area (it cannot be found in Hong Kong), which in some sad ways has become the local standard....but to get this sloppy rendition at a nicer place like Zen Peninsula is quite shocking. Maybe easier to do something like taro duck (where the exterior tastes like those deep fried taro puff dumplings in dim sum/wu gok) or American Chinese almond pressed duck.
Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong is arguably the best place to have this
As the writeup and pictures suggest, the chef even goes so far as to try to seal up the bird after bones and meat have been removed and stuffed with glutinous rice, then when the stuffed chicken is delivered to the table, waitstaff takes a pair of scissors and cuts it open. It runs around US$70 ish for this, more expensive than SF Bay Area, but at least it's the real deal.
The only places I can swear by is Cooking Papa (Foster City), and Yum's Bistro, where the batter is not salt and pepper. They don't seal up the bird to be cut upon serving, but at least it's done to my liking (although CP's rice is a bit more moist). With CP's rendition, it's very decent, even though I have a feeling the chefs there have not really practiced a whole lot with it, but have at least done their homework and try to mimic HK style (and done ok with it). With Yum's, the chef has been in the business for a significant period of time spanning several global geographic locations, so I do trust his experience and execution (even if it can't be compared to Luk Yu's but good enough).
The biggest irony is that the glutinous rice stuffed chicken wing at ZP during dim sum lunch is actually ok (individual portion at $6 per) but surprised they couldn't do a proper whole chicken the same way....wondering if there is a difference if this were preordered in Cantonese/Chinese vs English.
re: K K
The stuffed wing is fun to eat once, but it still seems more like a gimmick. For sure better tasting than what you had at dinner.
The next dish that follows the stuffed chicken in the linked blog is what is known as 網油鯪魚卷 which is a Shunde/Shun Tak specialty (old style Cantonese in Guangdong) and is one of those lost art cuisine dishes very old style receipe (probably the current HK generation's grandfathers used to eat when they were younger) that supposed only Luk Yu knows how to replicate properly. I'm not sure how to correctly translate this dish, but is a deep fried fish paste roll made with dace and apparently fried with lard. Who said old style receipes that almost faded out of existence is healthy :-)
As far as the caption: "這是順德人喜歡的味道，只有老師傅處理得妥，香港會做亦做得好，就在這裡。" - this is the flavor that Shunde people like, and only a master can execute this right. Hong Kong can do this right as well, and it is here (Luk Yu).
re: K K
I have probably tried all versions of dace fish (鯪魚) paste from every Asian store in the Bay Area. They all invariably come with...blah no taste. I remember watching someone at a fish booth in a market in Hong Kong putting dace in a grinder twice before selling it, and then back at home in our kitchen, we would still have to grab the dace paste and repeatedly hit it against the cutting board to get the texture to become chewier.
I haven't found a Cantonese restaurant here that uses dace fish paste in the traditional dish of panfried and stuffed three treasures (eggplant, green bell pepper, deep-fried tofu). It's always shrimp paste. A couple places even substitute jalapeno for green bell pepper.
I think getting a good dace fish paste here is next to impossible and nobody knows really how much dace is in there. Plus it's all frozen/imported.
Jade Garden might have the stuffed 3 treasures but I don't know what they stuff it with. Shrimp paste probably tastes a lot better than the pseudo dace fish paste. I think if you call ahead to special request they might do it the traditional way, hopefully their paste is good enough.
Have you tried Gourmet Village in Millbrae? Sadly not the best anymore these days, but at least they're a rare breed of restaurant specializing in Zhongshan cuisine with a few hints of Shun Tak style Cantonese, and their fish paste...while not bouncy enough, is better than nothing.
re: K K
Gourmet Village will be my next stop. I do understand they are not the same. Where did their chefs go though? Some other restaurant in Millbrae, or elsewhere? And what about the fantastic early chefs of The Kitchen? They couldn't just have all retired right?! I actually got the takeout menu of Gourmet Village and analyzed that with Yelp reviews quite a few times already. They have $60 and $88 family dinner menus for 4 and 6 people respectively that look darn enticing. In any case, they are still pretty packed most nights.
Set your expectations low at Gourmet Village, random ordering (ie tried and true Cantonese dishes) could be disasterous, tho the Zhongshan focused specialties might be ok (talk to ownership/management about what they think are their star offerings). I don't even know how many of the staff are still there that came from The Kitchen (have you been back to TK lately? Seem to be bustling with late night diners still, while Champagne Bistro looks sadly empty).
re: K K
My aunt has been making this chicken at home in San Francisco for more than 50 years. Hers is not actually battered but rather dusted with a combinations of flours. And I remember it from restaurant banquets when I was a kid, which predates the arrival of salt & pepper dishes to local menus.
re: K K
Oh I know why many places give the salt and pepper treatment to the sticky rice chicken. At ZP, I held up one of the chicken skin pieces and examined that: It was a thin piece of chicken skin (20%), surrounded (or "protected") by batter (80%). Crispy unbattered chicken skin is much thinner than duck skin (think Peking duck). And so if the chef is not skilful, the unbattered chicken skin may break up over the chicken body, and you can't serve that to customers.
A simply explanation is that the chef is inspired by KFC (however you interpret that K in KFC). ;-)
re: K K
"And so if the chef is not skilful" - hahaha, them's fighting words!! But if the skin breaks up, the chefs are still going to hope it doesn't break irregularly, at at least in bigger chunks so they can still attempt to reconstruct the chicken to make it look seemingly whole but already cut up. I'm amazed that Luk Yu seals up the chicken and the waitstaff uses scissors to cut it open and divide upon serving....this other place in Kowloon does that too.
"this is probably not a dish they are good at or make very often" - exactly, lack of practice and experience. This is a huge pitfall of randomly ordering "off menu" even if they claim they make a preorder item...but it really helps to understand their cooking process (and whether they will reveal their secret batter receipe for something that shouldn't have a batter will depend I suppose). Thus I'm very wary of Asian Pearl's version too.
re: K K
Well my memory of Luk Yu is pretty faint, after being in the US for 20+ years. And every time my family visits me, all I can hear is "Benu is certainly not worth their 2 Michelin stars blah blah blah!" OK you guys have traveled to the best restaurants in Asia and Europe, and I'm sorry Koi Palace has such cr*ppy Cantonese food (and service) for such an exorbitant tab!
Luk Yu is interesting because their chefs are *so* proficient at remaking those classic dishes. A lot of the younger folks would think, "Hey if I'm spending that much money why shouldn't we go to a 5-star hotel Cantonese restaurant?"
Does anyone remember a separate restaurant also called Hong Kong Flower Loung (HKFL) but with a different Chinese name also on El Camino Real in Millbrae a few blocks from the flagship HKFL many years ago? What happened to that? That used to be the "insider" restaurant many Chinese flocked to. The food was excellent and authentic.
You should hear a family member of mine complain about KP as well as Elite in Southern California... and he goes back to HK every year to enjoy the good stuff... but understand your family's gripes completely.
Luk Yu and Tak Lung in Sun Po Kong as well. Not just proficient, but they make it their life's goal to focus doing those old receipes so well that competitors can't come close.
The original HKFL used to be where Asian Pearl is, then my understanding is that they moved to the giant structure in the corner of Millbrae Ave / El Camino, then the name stayed at the original location for a bit, then changed to something something Pavillion, and maybe one more iteration before it came Asian Pearl.
And last I heard, Mayflower restaurant group bought out current HKFL location.
What's interesting is that about a year ago, Ronald Mar (HK expat former film star of some sort who freelances for Sing Tao food and wine) sang praises of HKFL's seasonal snake soup offering. I haven't been to HKFL in ages, so no idea how they are now, but on weekends the place looks packed from wedding banquets.The snake soup/bisque at Yum's I thought was very good (and also given that I haven't had snake soup in well over 20+ years too).
The descriptions of the chicken as soggy make it sound like it was made in advance and then reheated. This happened to me once at Great Eastern. We had ordered the dish in advance for a lunch time meal. I wondered whether the chef who knows how to make the dish only works the dinner shift and made it the night before.
Having enjoyed dim sum several times at Zen Pen I was eager to try them for dinner, as well as taste their version of the Dish of the Month.
I posted my comments on the stuffed chicken with sticky rice on the Dish of the Month thread-- http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8716...
My favorite dish of the night was the scallops in egg white-- fairly delicate but plenty of flavor, a good balance of seafood and egg white, and eggs cooked just right.
I enjoyed the items on the marinated platter and was pleasantly surprised by the tenderness of the duck tongue.
Zen Pen has produced both the best and the worst kabocha fries I’ve ever had, and fortunately last night they were much closer to the best than to the worst. My addiction to salted egg coating was fully satisfied.
The weakest dish was the smoked sea bass. I found the smokiness interesting but the sauce and sweet mayo condiment were cloying.
The pieces of BBQ pork I got were tough and dry.
The black sesame soup fed another of my addictions, but it’s not as satisfying as the thicker version at Cooking Papa in Foster City.
Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing our meal and to everyone there for the great company. We talked on about food long after the meal was done until eventually the lights started dimming and we had to leave. The next best thing to indulging an addiction is obsessing about it with fellow addicts!
Thanks to organizer and it was a treat to meet and chat with fellow ch's! That said - this is the worst meal I have had here - and I eat here fairly frequently. Don't know if it was poor chef or unfortunate ordering or?
I've never ordered deli type stuff here before and I was seriously underwhelmed by all dished of this type (I've had better char sui from 99ranch).
The lettuce with shrimp paste had no hint of shrimp paste flavor :(
I order eggplant with garlic sauce in claypot almost every time I am here and it is usually amazing - this time it had none of the savory and garlicy goodness I am used to :(
Kabocha fries - I've had them here before and they were so bad that I'd never order them again, but this time they were cut differently and were excellent.
Egg white with scallops - one of my favorites (originally tried b/c Melanie years ago) and this was as good as other times
Sea Bass - I agree overcooked and probably overpriced. In the past I've always had fish dishes that were wok fried and in general they have been excellent - we didn't have any of those this time.
It was a real turn off that the waiter kept trying to get us to order crab - persistent but annoying. He asked twice and was told no then when someone on the other side of the table was ordering he asked again! Maybe they were really overstocked with crab?
Had I not had many excellent meals here I would not go back, but I hope this was an abberation
As I commented in the other thread - the reason we were there - the chicken was a BIG disappointment and I would avoid even considering it!
BTW Vince - thanks for translating and the other treats.
Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing! My favorite dishes of the night were the scallop in egg white, the lettuce in shrimp paste, and the kabocha fries. The scallop in egg white was light and fluffy, and I don't often order dishes like this, so it was a treat. Lettuce in shrimp paste tasted just like a version of the dish I had in Hong Kong (the only other time I've tried it). Unlike others, I did think it tasted like shrimp paste....though most of this had settled to the bottom, so you sort of had to scrape it out. The kabocha fries were very good, with a crispy, salty shell. Similar to the rendition at Hakka in SF, although in a different shape.
I thought the eggplant was too oily and didn't have enough flavor. Like they forgot to put in half of the spices/ginger/garlic.
I thought the smoked seabass was kinda dry and boring, and the sweet mayo served with it was not to my liking.
The appetizers were all pretty good: two pork dishes and a marinated platter (highlight for me was the duck tongue)
Desserts were fine too, and I particularly liked the mango flavored mochi (though these were probably bought, and not made at the restaurant).
Overall, a good meal with good company, but I probably won't be rushing back to ZP anytime soon, as there are so many places that are at least this good, if not better, in the Bay Area.
Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing! And nice to see old hounds and new hounds.
Thank you, hyperbowler, for organizing the Zen Peninsula chowdown for October's chicken with sticky rice. The charm of the chowdown is meeting other 'hounds, and we were in good company last night.
Thank yous to Estelle for guiding us to the Egg White Scallops and her standby Garlic Eggplant in Clay Pot and to Vincent for evaluating the finer points of Chicken w/Sticky Rice and requesting the table's desserts. From the cross table comments, we've gleaned enough to muster other targets in the South Bay for this October search with two weeks remaining on the calendar.
The Lettuce w/Shrimp Paste is my favorite dish of the table, brightly braised with a delicately balanced sauce; followed by tender duck tongues on the appetizer plate easily played with your tongue to slip that one bone or tendon from its flesh and the marinated chicken gizzards; the egg white scallops, softly steamed to perfection with generous bits of scallop; and then, Kabocha Fries that were rich with salted egg yolks and NOT greasy. The Smoked Sea Bass is good; with crispy edges and a moist center; if you pick for it you can find the translucent meat - no doubt better as a simple stand alone dish with rice, noodles, or greens - it was lost in the melee.
Zen Peninsula remains a reliable stop after late night SFO arrivals with hunger pangs... for a dish or two. Perhaps not so much for full feasting, although we have been there on the sideline when huge wedding banquets are in full swing.
I am adding The Kitchen to my late SFO arrivals food search.
I just want to start by saying: PHOTOS - http://www.jeffersonscher.com/photos/...
I've enjoyed dim sum at Zen Peninsula in the past, but this was my first visit for dinner. Overall, I would rate it as "fair."
Some brief notes:
* My first impression of the outside of the chicken was a flashback to the egg rolls served in our favorite "American Chinese" restaurant in the early 70's. The standard "crispy chicken" treatment would have been more delicious. The base flavor of the rice was unobjectionable, but it could have used some textural contrasts like gingko nuts. Leaving a little more meat inside the skin would have made the dish seem less like a sack of slightly mushy rice and more like a chicken.
* I didn't find my bites of fish too salty, and there was a nice light smoky sweetness around the rich flesh.
* The roast pork neck could have been a bit more tender, but the sprinkle of chopped peanuts and (I think) granulated sugar worked reasonably well as seasoning.
* I did find what seemed to be some dried shrimp fragments at the bottom of the lettuce pot, but there was no discernible shrimp paste flavor.
* The garlic sauce on the eggplant needed more oomph and less oil.
Finally, thanks to hyperbowler for the coordination, to VLo for the sake, and to all the attendees for their insights and entertaining stories. We could have talked all night (if they hadn't turned off most of the lights).
Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing!
I'll add myself to the group who was underwhelmed by Zen Peninsula, and just run through the dishes I liked:
Kabocha with salted egg yolk: fantastic flavor and texture--I worried these wouldn't be as good when they weren't fresh out of the hopper, but even when slightly cooled the friction of the slightly grainy yolk batter against the chewy squash slices was pleasant
Scallop in egg white: pretty texture, very delicate as mentioned and probably best to order first, sort of like a glass of champagne before a meal
BBQ pork with soybeans: nice depth of flavor, some pieces were a little too hard
Oh and cost wise, this was about $22 per person, so not terribly expensive for a feast, though I'm in agreement that the chicken was way overpriced.
I was part of the Chow-Down crowd at Zen restaurant last night. It was my first Chow-Down, and I hope after these comments, I won't be taken off the invitee list, because I enjoyed myself very much. I loved meeting the group and discussing food minutiae ad-nauseum, which is my very favorite past-time and which bores most of my friends. However, in all honesty, apart from the company, I would've enjoyed Panda Express more. The two pork appetizers were good; the marinated platter yielded about two tiny bites for me, after disposing of bones and gristle. The kabocha fries were tasty and not greasy, and the scallop egg dish was flavorful enough for my tastes. I didn't miss the shrimp paste on the braised lettuce, since I'd not had that before, and to have some greenery was refreshing. The sea bass was overcooked, and too salty (as mentioned), and the stuffed chicken would've been good if advertised as sticky rice with not crisp skin and no discernible chicken meat. It was not worth the price by a long-shot. Although I liked some of the dishes, there was nothing with the Wow-Factor that would make me return to this restaurant.
Special thanks to Vincent who explained the intricacies of the dishes and how they Should've been prepared and presented. Please, don't fire me from ChowHound... I had a great time !