Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Signature Dish 2011 - Prince Chinese Seafood Restaurant

Prince Chinese Seafood 王子海鮮酒家 on Urbanspoon
I'm not sure if you've read about it in the WestEnder or the Georgia Straight, but there's a Chinese Restaurant dine-out event happening in November (1st to 18th). It's like Dine Out Vancouver, only geared towards groups of 4, 6, or 10.

Last Friday I managed to pull together a few foodie buddies to go to Prince Chinese Seafood Restaurant (very handily close to Renfrew Skytrain Station. We were only a party of five, so we had to settle for this menu instead of the expanded menu for 10:

Dinner Menu Set For Four to Six... $25 per person
  1. Seafood Soup Served in Fresh Whole Coconut
  2. Stir-fried B.C. Dungeness Crab and Eggplant with Amoy Premium Soy Sauce
  3. Stir-fried Diced Alberta Beef Tenderloin with Red and Yellow Bell Peppers
  4. Prince’s Tea-smoked Chicken
  5. Poached Choy Sum with Dry Shrimps and Garlic
  6. Nutritious Five Grains Fried Rice (serving by person)
  7. Passion Fruit Crystal Pudding
Lots of plusses and minuses to the experience. If you've mostly done Dine Out Vancouver or Taste of Yaletown and are used to restaurants other than Chinese restaurants, then it can be quite a shock and a rude experience. Most Chinese restaurants do things fast and loose. Staff can be quite informal, and everyone pitches in to keep the place humming. It looks chaotic. And it's a rare Chinese restaurant where the wait staff will drop by to ask how you like the food -- which was the case at this restaurant.

I did of course have a reservation for the "dine out event" -- the codeword that the participating restaurants have trained their staff to acknowledge. Use anything else and you're liable to confuse them. However, when I got there, I was simply asked how many in my party. So if you have a reservation, make sure to go on time. And even then, be prepared for your reservation to be meaningless. Chinese restaurants are geared toward family dine-outs and celebration dinners and can typically seat a lot of people so they aren't as anal about reservations, but if you're going to have to remind them you had a reservation, at least make sure you're on time. It's less likely they'll let people wait while there are empty tables waiting for latecomers.

The night we were there, they had two large parties: A baby shower and a lady celebrating her 100th birthday with her extended family. Right there, 2/3rds of the restaurant were taken up. So even if it looks like drop-ins are the norm, call in your reservation so that they can advise if there's a big party and if they'll have room for your group, especially if it's going to be more than 2-4 persons.

When they found me a table, I noticed they had the regular menu and a menu listing combos. But no dine-out menu. That I had to ask for it before they brought it to me means you ought to ask for the dine-out menu if that is specifically what you are looking for.

For the Signature Dish Series, the menus are set for 4, 6, or 10 persons, so they initially balked at doing it for our table of five, but eventually it was okay'ed by the manager. In hindsight, we could have gone for the menu for four because we were all full and there was till 2/3rds of the (boring) vegetable dish, the Poached Choy Sum with Dry Shrimps and Garlic, left on the table, plus miscellaneous items. Remember: In Chinese restaurants, the portions are generally overkill. We laugh at the Americans for their super-sized portions, but really it's there with the Chinese too, except it's more hidden because each dish doesn't appear to be that much.
That said, some of the menu items are individual servings, so a menu tailored for 4 at a 5-person table would have awkward moments.

For this particular restaurant, if you are committed to the dine out menu, you should let them know ahead of time because the very first item -- seafood soup served in fresh coconuts -- takes a long time to prepare. Possibly because everyone gets their own coconut. Once it arrives, look for a metal spoon so you can more efficiently scrape the inside of the coconut and get at the meat; if they didn't bring one, you may want to ask for one. "Western" utensils like forks and spoons are typically not provided except as serving utensils for communal dishes.

Except dessert, the items on the menu will come one after the other, pretty much as quickly as the kitchen can prep and as soon as there's space on the table once earlier items are cleared. Flavour-wise the caucasians in our party seemed impressed. I'm Chinese and I grew up on this stuff, so I'm harder to impress. I'd have to say mom made it better.

The seafood soup in coconuts was an interesting idea, but I didn't think it came out particularly well. Very likely they used the coconut milk/water inside, but the flavour wasn't strong enough in the soup.

The dungeness crab was okay, but better if everyone concentrates on that first when it's hot. Later, when it's cold, the tastiness plummets -- which is not a reflection on this particular dish, however: It's just the way crab is. Remember to lift the crab shell to reveal the fried innards of the crab. It's a tad greasy tasting, but not too much. More likely (such as in our case) it'll have been somewhat burnt. It's interesting to taste, but definitely not for everyone.

The most stand-out tastiest dish for me was the stir-fried diced Alberta beef tenderloin. Not really anything special, just the tastiest of the bunch.

Tea-Smoked Chicken was okay-tasting. Interesting concept but I thought the end result wasn't so special.

As mentioned before, the huge plate of vegetables was boring and we barely paid attention to it.

The rice was surprising to see and the mixed grains gave it a slightly more interesting flavour than typical Chinese restaurant fried rice. Not super-special per se, but different in a neat way.

Dessert was okay. Not super-sweet, which I liked. We were also given a bonus bowl of red bean soup! Again, not as sweet as it is sometimes made, and almost on the bland side.

Overall, it was okay value for the money (after tax and tip, the price per person was $32). If you're more easily impressed by Chinese food than me, then you might find it above average, if the comments from my fellow diners were any indication.
If you find your table has a lot of leftovers, don't be shy about asking for a doggy bag.

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