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January 25, 2012

Peking Garden

Braised Scallops Dominic Armato

Old habits die hard.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that we've been staying in the same hotel in Hong Kong for about 20 years... since I was a teenager. And when you go frequently, you start to fall into habits. And one of those habits has always been to start the trip with a review of the week's itinerary over lunch at Peking Garden downstairs. The day in Shanghai bumped that tradition on this particular trip, but on one late evening after a 12 hour day in China, we decided to get our fix.

The Peking Garden I refer to is the one in Pacific Place, the extremely upscale mall where, judging from the number of supercars in the parking lot, Hong Kong's elite mingle with expats and tourists in a setting that's as divorced from old China as you're likely to get. But it's an offshoot of a Hong Kong stalwart that's been around since the '70s, and over the years it's provided us with some truly excellent classics and contemporary takes thereon. I've sung Peking Garden's praises before. But in the intervening years, though I'm not sure which, it would seem that one of us has changed.

Hot Sour SoupDominic Armato

The room has, certainly. In a move that was undoubtedly designed to confuse jetlagged travelers who haven't visited in a few years, four of the six restaurants in the restaurant court were there five years ago, but only one of them occupies the same space while the other three have all swapped positions. And, whilst playing musical chairs with its neighbors, Peking Garden has contemporized, redesigning to create an "American" decor (their word). And as part of the atmospheric shift, they're clearly trying to class the joint up as well, adding embroidered napkins, artful presentations, elaborate serving pieces and sleeker attire for the waitstaff. The menu's gotten a makeover too, dropping the old Sichuan Garden half and focusing more on the specialties of the house and less, seemingly, on the more traditional fare. It's not really the same restaurant it was, but enough of the menu is familiar that we managed to pick out a couple of favorites to go along with some new dishes.

Sweet Sour Chili ShrimpDominic Armato

Hot sour soup is as good as it ever was, and I continue to appreciate it just for its simplicity. I know this is setting the bar low, but man, it's so nice to have a hot sour soup that got that way via chinkiang vinegar and white pepper. Every time I get a hot sour soup that's made with sambal, I die a little inside, and it happens far more often than I'd like. But another old favorite, the sweet sour chili shrimp, seems to have lost some of its luster. I always loved that the sweet deferred to the sour, that the sauce had a kind of liquory intensity, and that the aromatics punched through rather than getting buried in the potent sauce. But on this occasion, it lacked the intensity that I remember, was almost unpleasantly syrupy, and the coating on the shrimp came off as oddly bready... not at all what I remember. In this instance, I don't think it's me... this dish used to be better.

Dry Chili ChickenDominic Armato

That I was merely satisfied by the dry chili chicken may, however, have more to do with me. I was attempting to order a dish that I listed on my Deliciousness of 2005 post (oy... reading stuff that old is embarrassing), and somehow ended up with something else. Many of the dishes have been renamed, and in fact, I'm not even sure how the dish we did get was officially titled. But in any case, it was a dry Sichuan-style chicken with chiles and Sichuan pepper and peanuts. And it was fine. I've had better (and would have MUCH better a few days later... more on that shortly), and I had a hard time getting excited about it. The punch just wasn't quite there. Even flatter were the shrimp-stuffed scallops, coated and braised in a kind of garlicky brown sauce that again was... okay. This is a dish that Americanized Chinese restaurants butcher, and this certainly wasn't butchered, but nor did it have the kind of life and vibrancy that I've come to expect from good Chinese cuisine. It just came off flat.

String BeansDominic Armato

Stir fried string beans weren't off, just timid, and I wasn't getting the slightest sense of wok hay (AKA the otherwise indescribable sense of stir fry awesomeness when it's done right), which is absolutely critical for these simple vegetables. I couldn't point to a specific flaw, precisely. But the beauty that should have been there just wasn't. And that was dinner at one of our old favorite standbys. So which is it? Did Peking Garden lose a step in the relocation and transformation? Or would 2006 me be as impressed by these dishes as I was back then? I'm not sure. Both probably play a role, but I suspect the former rather than the latter. I know more about Chinese cuisine than I did six years ago, but even then I think I had a good sense of when dishes popped and when they didn't, even if it was less often that I understood why. Or maybe it was just an off night. But even if that's the case, whether to the world or just to me, it's clear that this is no longer the restaurant that it once was. And that's too bad.

Peking Garden (Admiralty)
www.maximschinese.com.hk
Shop 005, Pacific Place
Admiralty, Hong Kong
2845 8452
Mon - Sun11:30 AM - 4:30 PM5:30 PM - 11:30 PM

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