DINING OUT; A Taste of Hong Kong in (Yes!) New Haven
By MARK BITTMAN
For those who grew up in post-war America, this is not the Cantonese food of our childhoods, all chow mein and egg foo young and shrimp with lobster sauce. Rather, this is largely the cooking brought to North America by the recent immigrants from Hong Kong, many of whom left just before Britain handed over its former colony.
The showcase of this cuisine is in Vancouver, but it is nearly as strong in Los Angeles and is popular up and down the West Coast.
As most trends do in North America, it has migrated East, and it now has a representative in New Haven: Royal Palace. The restaurant is in the city's Ninth Square district, an ongoing renovation and restoration project, near the Coliseum and less than two minutes from the Connecticut Turnpike. Friends who first took me to Royal Palace did not announce, ''There's a great new Hong Kong-style restaurant downtown.'' They just said, ''There's a Chinese restaurant I want you to try.''
This was an exciting event, because though New Haven has had its share of iconic Chinese restaurants, there has been no top dog for the last 10 years. Royal Palace comes closer to fitting that description than any of its competitors.
As is typical of Hong Kong-style restaurants, Royal Palace is large, bright and clean, not exactly upscale but with fairly comfortable padded cafe chairs, real tablecloths and napkins, indirect lighting and white walls. The staff is uncommonly friendly -- go twice and you are a regular -- and reasonably efficient. There are two menus, one quite standard: beef with orange sauce, moo shu pork, chicken with broccoli, even egg foo young. And so on. The other features Cantonese specialties, presumably once provided only to Chinese-speaking customers and is now translated into English. This is the one you want, and you will get it without asking.
There is even a third menu, a verbal one, revealed piecemeal, or sometimes not at all. Order, for example, steamed pork dumplings, and you might be told that there are also dumplings with steamed shrimp. Order cold spicy conch and you might be offered a tender braise of conch and chiles (I ate this, and enjoyed it).
My conclusion, after several visits, is that if you appear interested, and the chef is not overwhelmed, a few things off the menu might be suggested to you. This should not be too much of a concern, as the normal Cantonese menu is adequate, though it has its weak points. Snow peas, spinach or Chinese broccoli sautéed with garlic are bright and clean-tasting; Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce is not as good, simply because the oyster sauce is bitter.
Salt-baked pork and salt-baked squid are both great, but you should know that ''baked'' is a rather loose translation of ''deep-fried.'' As long as you don't mind, you will love them: they are crisp, hot and fresh, sprinkled with salt, pepper, scallions and a few bits of minced chiles.
One interesting dish that will be new to people who have not had Hong Kong-style cuisine is honey-walnut shrimp, in which the shrimp are crisp fried, then tossed in mayonnaise and topped with candied walnuts; don't knock it until you try it.
Lobster with ginger is spectacular, a whole lobster, cut up, sautéed with its coral and ginger and scallions. It may make you remember shrimp in lobster sauce, but you will then quickly forget it; this is much better. Fans of spicy foods should try the cold beef tendon or conch; both are chewy, really hot and make great palate teasers.
There are disappointments. The Hong Kong sauce known as XO should be mysteriously flavorful (it contains dried scallops, among other things); here it is bland. Pork with sweet and sour sauce is essentially barbecued spare ribs (though I found this inedible, I should mention that several teenagers I ate with thought this dish was great).
Casseroles, amazing elsewhere, are not worth ordering here. And to say that the dumplings are not the restaurant's strong point would be an act of kindness.
Still, those preparations that do work make Royal Palace a strong
choice because its menu does depart from what we have come to see as
''Chinese'' food, and allows us to further explore the country's
regional treasures. A few more restaurants like it would make me quite
Mark Bittman writes the cooking column ''The Minimalist'' in the Dining section and is the author of several cookbooks, including ''How to Cook Everything,'' ''The Minimalist Cooks at Home'' and ''The Minimalist Cooks Dinner.'' ''The Minimalist Entertains'' will be published next spring. He lives in Connecticut. Mr. Bittman and Patricia Brooks will write the Dining Out column on alternate weeks.
Published: 09 - 15 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section 14CN , Column 3 , Page 12