Albany NY and Capital Region Restaurants

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ocean Palace

Ocean Palace (OP) was my latest stop on this tour-of-Albany. I was craving Dim Sum so the following entry, with the exception of soup, will solely emphasize on that aspect of the establishment.

This review of OP also marks the first entry which features a restaurant which has been reviewed by other local food bloggers, including Albany Jane (albanyeats.blogspot.com). As I said in my initial entry this is inevitable in a small town like Albany where there is only a finite number of dining establishments. Nonetheless, I love how two similarly situated persons can come to form different opinions about a place. OP is one such instance.

OP is a place I really want to love, and I'm sure that'll come across when I review OP's other fine lunch and dinner offerings.

Many people ask me about my favorite (local) Chinese restaurants. I invariably direct them to Ocean Palace, with a few caveats: 1) try to go during lunch hour to take advantage of the 40+ lunch offerings, 2) do try one of the posted specials, and 3) by all means, don't water-down the experience by ordering OP for take-out; your neighborhood strip-mall Chinese-take-out place is better suited for that.

OP is set off a busy segment of Central Avenue. Its located on the main floor of an office building that, frankly, looks abandoned. You enter the building and just past the vestibule doors lies a scene reminscent from an old Kung Fu movie. To your right lies a large fish tank with fish that's ostensibly going to end up in that evening's dinner special. The lighting is subdued, but not in a romantic way, and gives off an element of "seedyness." You can almost picture a time, when there were a roomful of diners, plates and cups clattering, and the intense smoke from handrolled cigarettes lingering in the air. This is no longer the scene and the room feels dingy. Curiously, there's a large projector screen draped over a wall in the back part of the restaurant. I've seen it functioning on certain occasions, usually projecting Chinese television programs or on one occasion the Judge Joe Brown show.

I remind myself that I'm not here for the atmoshphere, and if atmoshphere was what I had sought, I could try out many of Albany's more "upscale" establishments (even though the food quality may be, regretfully, lacking).

The service at OP is anemic. Even during the busy lunch hour, there are usually only 2 - 3 servers working the entire floor, which, at capacity, may have nearly 50-75 diners. I stand up in my booth to look around, trying to make eye contact with a server, thinking that I perhaps snuck into to the restaurant unannounced. (OP -1)

My dining partner and I have previously agreed on Dim Sum. We both wanted an order of soup, so I opted for my favorite, Hot & Sour, and my partner ordered Egg Drop. Although there are many Chinese soups available, I like using Hot & Sour soup as a benchmark by which I can compare other Chinese restaurants. The soup was delivered with an order of crispy flat noodles, and I requested a side of chili paste. On the plus side, the soup was full of bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, and pork. Also, a huge pet peeve of mine, when it comes to starch thickened soups (arrowroot or cornstarch) is when they're over thickened. You know, when/if you bring home leftovers and the next morning its hardened to take on the shape of the plastic container. Anyhow, OP found the right thickness for its Hot & Sour soup. Unfortunately, however, the soup was too "bright" -- it was too sour and not nearly hot enough. A few additions including the chili paste helped bring it into balance, but I wouldve prefered it right, straight from the pot. (OP -1)

I also placed our Dim Sum order along with the soup order. We settled on

1) Har Gow
2) Sui Mai
3) Beef rice roll
4) Bean curd cake with shrimp

All four dishes arrived simultanously and within 5 minutes of finishing the soup course.

In my experience, Har Gow and Sui Mai are usually served in the bamboo (or metal) steamers. Unfortunately, they were served on side plates, 4 to an order, with the typical serving sauces off to the side in a ramekin. I know its just a matter of presentation, but I really enjoy receiving the food in its typical cooking vessel (OP -1).

I tried the Har Gow first since it's the item with the shortest shelf life. This dish, in particular, epitomized my dissatisfaction with the Dim Sum offerings of the evening. Har Gow is a light, transparent, shrimp dumpling. The wrapper is merely a means to deliver the shrimp-y goodness inside and should very little away from that. Unfortunately, the wrapper was excessively gummy, and worst of all, its clear that OP doesnt use fresh shrimp in its Dim Sum. The shrimp was overcooked, not deveined, and tasted otherwise "fishy." Sadly, I ordered two Dim Sum plates with shrimp, the Bean Curd Cake being the second. (OP-1)

The Bean Curd Cake featured an approximately 2" cubed piece of white bean curd, topped with a shrimp paste and formed around 1-2 pieces of the aforementioned shrimp. The cake was lightly battered, the consistency of which was just thicker than tempura. As delicate as this dish could've been, it missed on two points: 1) the poor quality of the shrimp used and 2) it was evident that the oil in the fryer had not been changed recently. Overall, the Cake was bland and underwhelming

Hitting rockbottom, OP's offerings grew better as dinner progressed. The Sui Mai (steamed dumplings with pork and shrimp) were better, despite the addition of the same shrimp from before. Fortunately, the shrimp in the Sui Mai were minced, so you didnt get the full effect as you would in a dish like Har Gow. The pork was well seasoned, albeit a bit denser than I'd like in a Sui Mai plate.

Finally, the highlight of the evening (if you can call it that) was the Beef Rice Roll. It brought three pieces to an order already dressed with its appropriate sauce. Unfortunately, I wasnt adept enough with the chopsticks to try to eat this dish without the aid of Western utensils. The dish featured minced beef, water chestnuts, garlic and cilantro, wrapped in a rice noodle, with a delicious sweet soy sauce. The beef was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the noodle was thick enough to hold in the filling. (OP +1)

Despite an overall score of (-3), I will return to OP and hopefully, represent to each of you, how it remains one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in the Capital region. Next time, however, I'll save my Dim Sum for NYC.

Ocean Palace
855 Central Ave
Albany, NY 12206
(518) 453-6258

2 Comments:

  • I think a the Dim Sum around here is pretty disappointing. Some dishes are better at one than another.
    Ocean Palace wins for cheapness over Emperor's, but I've noticed the last few times I've stopped in Emperor's the quality has been going a little down hill. Don't ever try the har gow at Emperor's if you don't like OP's. It's too eggy.
    The service at OP's is pretty finicky. Every time I go I get nagged as to why I don't speak Chinese. Emperor's has great service, but it's a little more pricier.

    And Chirag, you've got to Dim Sum with me. Only THREE dishes? Pish tosh - Amateur :)

    By Blogger Albany Jane, at 8:58 AM  

  • Just ate at Ocean Palace tonight with my wife and kids. I loved it. My wife did not.

    She had wonton soup and cashew chicken. She ate only a little of the soup because she didn't like it. She liked the cashew chicken better. I tried both dishes and thought they were excellent. The chicken in her cashew chicken was cooked just right and had a delicate flavor. The sauce was stronger but far from overwhelming. The soup also had a delicate flavor. Neither dish was the way they are in most Chinese restaurants around here. I suspect OP is more "authentic".

    I ordered a dish that's called Mabo Dofu in Japan and apparently Mapo Dofu in China. It's a mix of tofu and minced pork. The version I had in Japan was spicier and had more pork. The one at Ocean Palace has a fairly small amount of pork, with a lot of tofu along with some Chinese mushrooms. This dish was good, but I remember liking it better in Japan. Maybe I was just looking for what I remembered.

    We also got noodles for our daughters, but they didn't eat much of them. It was ginger-scallion noodles. I thought it was also quite good.

    By Blogger Albany Lawyer, at 8:10 PM  

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