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!
But not for long. After yet another reminder to the waiter, our Crispy chicken with salt and spices finally arrived – a dish which, I’m afraid, was just a catalogue of failures. First, God knows why they use such a big plate for such a small portion of chicken. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed this could be a dish from a Michelin 2-star kitchen. Madness! Next, the edge of the plate was greasy. It was as if we were in some small, local place in Chinatown where a busy chef had quickly chopped the chicken up and dump it unceremoniously on the plate. Not at all what you expect in a top hotel! Then, although the skin was pleasantly thin and crispy, the surface was rough and the breast meat was soft and overly dry.
The leg meat closer to the bone was better, but still quite bland. We left half of the breast meat untouched, concluding that they just use poor ingredients. I think Chef Ip would benefit from a trip to T’ang Court to experience their Crispy Salted Chicken, achieved by poaching in a superior broth that lends delicious flavours to their already-juicy chicken meat. Incidentally, there was yet another service issue during this course – they only realised that they had forgotten to give us small plates when we had to leave the bones on the table!
And that was it, pretty much, for the main meal. To finish off, we had Fried rice with diced seafood in XO sauce, served in a stone hot pot followed by dessert. These turned out to be the best things in whole meal! In the first of these dishes, the rice was fried perfectly – so well, in fact, that I could feel each individual grain in my mouth. There was no greasiness at all. I could also taste the delicate and obviously fresh seafood they had used, carrying just the tiniest hint of spiciness from the XO sauce. Excellent – and thoroughly recommended!
However, since the appetizers, my glass had been empty, and we were getting near the end of the meal. Finally, in desperation, I had to ask the waiter to bring back my bottle of water, which they placed on the side table. I felt like I was in a self-serve place!
By now, every waiter was busy cleaning up other tables rather than attending customers. Surely there’s something radically wrong with that order of priorities! Anyway, after yet another long wait (how many was that?), the waiter finally cleaned up our table (we had to ask him to do so). Then, more waiting, and more prompting waiters, to get our dessert. Exasperating, to say the least! And it wasn’t just our table – other tables were obviously in need of attention too. I was beginning to feel angry, as well as disappointed and frustrated. What was going on? Surely even the most inexperienced of managers should be able to see that this level of service was totally unacceptable. Fortunately for my blood pressure, though, our dessert arrived, and it was outstanding.
It took just a sip of their famous Sago cream with mango juice and pomelo to sooth me considerably. With super-fresh mango that had no hint of sourness, and juicy pomelo with absolutely no bitterness, it was an amazing dessert. Sublime, in fact. Much better than any other place I’ve been.
From the sublime to the ridiculous! Having had to chase the waiter (almost literally!) again and again for our petits fours, they finally arrived. But, not for the first time, the waiter just dumped it on the table and disappeared, without even a word of explanation. It was appalling. Not, I should say, that we were being singled out to receive especially bad treatment – it took only a few moments of observation to see that that’s how all tables were served. An almost total lack of basic training! Anyhow, back to the food…the petits fours. These were the two traditional custards – the first one was red date with a layer of coconut cream, while the second one was…
…osmanthus with tiny pieces of water chestnut. Not overly sweet, but very refreshing and it left a pleasant final taste in the mouth. But, while we finished the meal on a decidedly upbeat note, it was a long way from being enough to compensate for the letdown of the prawn, the chicken and the pig’s hair.
In conclusion… I should start by emphasising, to those who don’t already know, that New York’s Brooklyn Fare is one of my favourite restaurants. Despite the fact that it’s a place that’s notorious for its very poor service, it serves delicious food using top quality ingredients. That will make it clear, I hope, that I never let service levels impact my judgement on food. And it’s true that the Summer Palace did have a few gastronomic highlights – most notably the fried rice and mango dessert, closely followed by the bean curd and crab claw. But the rest was disappointing in the extreme, mainly as a result of very sub-par ingredients. The chicken, for example, was – to put it bluntly – like a bad joke. And the service! What can I say about this that I haven’t already said or implied? Basically, it was nothing short of a disgrace to Hong Kong hospitality – a challenge to get attention, unclean serveware, pig’s hair in the food, no explanations about the food. It was simply dreadful. With a Michelin 2-star rating, it makes a mockery of the rating system – it’s no wonder that people in Hong Kong have no faith in the Michelin Guide! The bill for this simple meal was an amazing US$340, making it – by far – the worst value for money on this trip and even more expensive than my shark’s fin and bird’s nest meal in FLM! Basically, it would be a sin against my professional standards to recommend this restaurant.