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Summer Palace (夏宮)

Month of Review: Jan 2016

Summer Palace - Two words that, singly, evoke images of pleasure and magnificence; relaxation and grandness. Together, they suggest a temple of excellence; create expectations of the very highest order. On this occasion, however, the reality simply didn’t meet our expectations; words such as ‘excellence’ and ‘magnificence’ were never less relevant. In short, the place located inside Island Shangri-La was a serious let-down. Among the many Hong Kong restaurants I’ve visited for Foodie Hub in recent weeks, not only were there many local favourites, but I also included a few Michelin 2-star eateries. However, the Hong Kong Michelin Guide has disappointed yet again!
With a name like this, it was hardly a surprise that the dining room featured traditional Chinese architecture, which is often dominated by gold and red. When we arrived, the dining room had a peaceful, classy atmosphere that promised an enjoyable experience. But that air of calm was short-lived – before long, the room had filled to the extent that it had a chaotic feel, reminiscent of those Sunday dim sum places, where too few waiters run madly around in a hopeless effort to cope with far too many guests. I was glad we had pre-ordered our meal (which included the four recommended dishes on their website), or we might have been in for quite a wait before someone took our order!

But even having got ahead of the game by pre-ordering, we had to wait a considerable time for our first course. In fact, it was a full 15 minutes, and several requests, before the waiter finally arrived to serve (‘drop in front of us’ would be a more accurate phrase) our appetizer. This consisted of three items – one of which was the establishment’s signature Chilled crystal ham, a pork knuckle terrine which had a pleasantly rich sausage-like flavour that I liked. But, while my own crystal ham was pretty decent, my friend’s had a rather unpleasant surprise lying in wait – a surprise that took the form of a long pig’s hair, sticking out from the pork skin. We immediately tried to get attention of the staff, but after 3 minutes (yes, we had started timing for review purposes as I wanted to be accurate), we gave up. If we were ever going to finish the course, it seemed like we had no choice but to remove the skin from the ham ourselves. It wasn’t the most pleasant start!
The other items in our appetizer were Deep-fried wonton, which was crispy with prawn inside. The skin was neither too thick nor too greasy, so I could taste the stuffing. Overall, I enjoyed it, but easily the best item was the Marinated bean curd. This was very aromatic with a hint of spiciness from the slice of red pepper. The small pieces of garlic had a nice meaty flavour that avoided being too garlicky by being marinated in chicken broth and soy sauce. Amazing! At this point, we decided that it would be good to get some background on the food, but as none of the waiters seemed to have either the knowledge or the time to help, we had to ask the manager to tell us what we wanted to know. Still, on balance, and despite the poor service and the pig’s hair incident, it’s only fair to report that the appetiser was quite decent - even though, by the time we had finished the dish, I had been waiting for over 5 minutes for a top-up of my water (and was still waiting!)

As always, we decided to taste the Char siu, as it’s a great way to gauge skills in the roasted meat category. Char siu is a personal thing for me - I always like it to have an assertive mouthfeel in the meat element. This one didn’t work for me – although it had a good amount of fat, the meat part was way too soft. Also, the sauce had absolutely no intensity; no punch. Very disappointing.

By now, the service had gone from slow to almost non-existent. We had to actually ask staff to remove our finished plates, and then to deliver our next dish. This arrived after a frustrating 19 minutes, during which time we were – not once but twice! - served the wrong dish, which was immediately whisked away to the next table without a word of apology. You get better service in Cha Che Tang (a Hong Kong cafe)!

Freshness of ingredients is always important to me – and especially when it comes to seafood dishes in Hong Kong, as it’s right next to the sea. In an ideal world, my seafood is live until it’s cooked - it makes a day-and-night difference to the dish. And, at a place like Summer Palace, I had every reason to hope (though it was a hope that was beginning to fade!) that I was in an ideal world, so I keenly looked forward to the coming dish - Baked king prawn in truffle pesto sauce – which was another signature dish. As it turned out, the word ‘king’ was something of an understatement, as the prawn was much bigger than I expected – ‘super jumbo’ would have been a better description. It certainly put a smile back on my face!

Salivating with expectation, I took a bite from the side of the prawn that had no sauce just to get a sense of the quality of the seafood, and was met by a superb, softly crunchy texture. But texture is one thing, taste another – and the prawn itself was bland to the point of flavourless. Where on earth they managed to find such insipid prawns defeats me – it was like they were injected with water. Oh, well - everything becomes enjoyable with some truffle sauce on top!

After another (by now predictably) long wait, another recommended dish arrived, this time Steamed crab claw served on a piece of wintermelon. And I enjoyed it a lot. The freshness of the crab came across strongly, marrying very well with the savouriness of the thick egg white broth, which had an excellent taste of JinHua ham. Things were looking up!