Photo by Anne Fishbein
Chinese banquets are extremely fine things, exquisitely choreographed successions of tastes and textures that are greater than each dish on its own, long-form essays in freshness and style that tend to play themselves out on a larger screen than all but the most elaborate Western meals: operatic feasts.
A proper Chinese banquet with its attendant overtones of luxury — abalone, lobster, suckling pig, double-boiled snow-frog ovaries — is not precisely cheap, but when the cost is averaged over 10 hungry mouths, it is usually much less expensive than a meal of the same quality at a sushi bar or a restaurant like Spago.
Harbor Village was probably the swankest Hong Kong–style banquet restaurant Monterey Park has ever seen, a vast, low-ceilinged room with marble, brass and crystal chandeliers, live-seafood tanks worthy of a national aquarium, and by far the longest lines in the city for Sunday dim sum. When famous Chinese chefs drifted into town to promote special feasts of bird’s nest and sea cucumber, or to demonstrate the savor of sun-dried abalones so expensive that they make caviar seem as thrifty as salt cod, it was to Harbor Village they came. To some highborn Hong Kong natives, Harbor Village was the only Chinese restaurant in Southern California.
Chinese restaurants can go in and out of favor within weeks, but Harbor Village was always thronged with wedding banquets, political banquets, birthday banquets, business banquets — so many, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if the restaurant must have hired a consultant for the specific purpose of inventing occasions on which a banquet might be thrown. When I decided to arrange a Chinese banquet of my own a few weeks ago — just because — Harbor Village was the obvious restaurant to call. But Harbor Village recently morphed into Empress Harbor Seafood Restaurant, an outpost of the splendid Sea Empress chain (nobody had bothered to tell me when I reserved), and I was surprised to walk into a lobby choked with the red-and-gold good-luck displays that traditionally bedeck brand-new Chinese businesses.
The woman behind the counter assured me that nothing had changed, that the kitchen crew and most of the staff remained from the old restaurant, but I was a little suspicious. The flowery special Harbor Village dishes had vanished from the menu, replaced by the prosaic mainstays of Hong Kong seafood cookery. The restaurant felt new, even if the fixtures were largely the same, more casual somehow, less obviously reeking of opulence. Nobody seemed particularly interested in discussing the menu — I was told fairly brusquely just to order, that everything would be okay. And the waiter jotted down the request for a 10-course, $368 banquet as quickly, as offhandedly, as if he were taking the order for a Number Two Family Dinner. I had visions of cutting and running, of slapping a couple of $20s on the table, gathering my friends and absconding to Charming Garden next door, where we could at least be sure of a tasty smoked pomfret and a bubbling tofu casserole. And then the food came, a succession of tastes and textures, freshnesses and funkinesses, sweets and savories, as carefully composed as a sonnet.
First came a huge barbecue platter, mounded high with sweetened strands of jellyfish and ringed with slices of cured beef and roast duck, centered around slabs of roast suckling pig whose skin shattered in the mouth like glass. There was a great version of the new-wave Hong Kong classic of big, pink shrimp crusted with hot mayonnaise and garnished with honeyed walnuts, a hundred times better than it sounds, and a dish of sautéed sea scallops garnished with carefully deep-fried sea scallops that seemed to hint at the delicate marine gaminess of the shellfish.
A thick, almost gelatinous soup of fresh crab with shark’s fin carefully balanced the sea-sweetness of one against the powerful muskiness of the other. Braised abalone was too dense, too strong, although it was served on a bed of the most delicate baby mustard greens, and was passed over by almost everybody in favor of the enormous sautéed lobster that had been glazed with the most extraordinary sauce of reduced chicken stock, a bright-red essay on the virtues of surf ’n’ turf on a plate. Beijing duck came to the table to be admired and was then whisked away; a few seconds later, we were served bare, delicately crunchy wisps of the skin alone tucked into little rolls. There were steamed fish from the restaurant’s tanks, four of them in fact, a couple of sheepshead that had broken apart into mush, which were quickly replaced by steamed rockfish whose flesh was delicate as vanilla pudding. We all stared for a while at a big bowl of fried rice, barely able to move, and then sucked on some orange slices.
In good Chinese restaurants, individual dishes can be memorable. In great Chinese restaurants, the 10-course banquet is the basic unit of expression, and you can no more judge a grand Hong Kong restaurant by meals-for-two than you can judge Renee Fleming by a recital of Stephen Foster songs or Kobe Bryant by a victory in a slam-dunk contest. It is performance over the long haul that counts. And at the new Empress Harbor, we ate a stunning meal.
111 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 300-8833. Open daily for dim sum and dinner. Dim sum for two, food only, $20–$30. Banquets for 10, $288 and up. Full bar. Covered lot parking. AE, DISC, MC, V.