January 25, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Imperial Palace: Crab Love

 Alaskan crab three ways starts with salt and pepper fried chunks. Photo: Steven Richter
Alaskan crab three ways starts with salt and pepper fried chunks. Photo: Steven Richter

        “We’re going to Flushing with friends to eat crab,” my friend emailed.  “Want to come?” I thought of the Mock Turtle’s song from Alice in Wonderland. “Will you walk a little faster?” said the whiting to the snail…They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance?” And so the Road Food Warrior and I join George and Jenifer Lang as the relentless GPS leads us to Flushing. Relieved of backseat driving by modern technology, I unfold the paper Jenifer has given me: a printout of Sam Sifton’s NYTimes review of Imperial Palace with dishes he liked underlined. One star. Well, okay. He got there first. I’ll live with that.

        "Do we really want to taste duck tongues?” I ask.

         “We don’t have to have duck tongues,” she offers. “We can order whatever we want.”

These are Vancouver knife-and-fork oysters. I cut them with chopsticks. Photo: Steven Richter

        Three more Sifton faithful are already sipping tea and nibbling peanuts at a big round against the back wall as we pass by the aquarium, a must in any serious Cantonese restaurant where “live” is the mantra. The early birds have brought wine. Michael Tong, proprietor of Shun Lee and Shun Lee Palace, dressed like a diplomat, speaking Cantonese and escorting a friend in fur, cuts a swath through the crowd, making a strong power statement. He carries wine in his tote, including a rare California red. “I know Gael likes red,” he says, handing me the bottle. “When you go to Flushing, you always bring wine.” He prefers a Reisling, he says. “You need the sweetness to compromise the spiciness of the food.”

The surrounding tables are crowded with local families. Photo: Steven Richter

        “So we’re here for crab,” Michael tells the waiter. The man stands by rapt, ears only for Tong. One by one we chime in our requests. Ignored. The waiter will only take orders from Tong’s mouth. We must choose, Michael translates, between Dungeness crab from Vancouver at $28 each – we’ll need three or four – and a giant Alaskan crab, five pounds served here three ways for $300. It’s unanimous: Our Alaskan heavyweight is brought out for one last photo op.
       And then, quickly, runners deliver clams in black bean sauce, and the prettiest baby bok choy I’ve ever seen, the greens neither overcooked nor so al dente they can’t be cut with a fork. I’ve asked Tong to instruct the staff not to serve everything all at once, Chinese family style.  “And I don’t want it one at a time like a banquet either,” I say. “Let them send it in waves, three or four dishes at a time, so it stays hot.”

For a second course of crab, it’s a choice of noodles or sticky rice. Photo: Steven Richter

        Behind me families gather at big rounds like ours. I want everything they’re having, sure that we are two degrees of separation from divining the Flushing code. Now the captured Alaskan reappears as salt and pepper crab, hacked into big chunks and fried in the shell, its meat easy enough to pull out with a cocktail fork or chopsticks. It doesn’t look like $300, but the taste is priceless. Tender, juicy, mostly not overcooked. Michael sees me struggling a bit with a claw and puts a prime piece on my plate. I’m playing the sweetness of the crab against garlicky snow pea shoots.

The voluptuous crab egg custard still haunts me. Photo: Steven Richter

        There is more crab tossed with sticky rice and chopped scallion in a casserole but best of all, an ambrosial fondue of crab egg custard ladled into the crab’s shell. A Chinese scholar at our table compares it to chawanmushi, the delicate Japanese custard.  And I’m knocked out as I always am by outsize four-bite Vancouver oysters with pungent XO sauce. Even more amazed are those of us who’ve never seen them before. 

This anorexic flounder is too thin and dry though I’m happily crunching bones.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Alas, the flounder that gave its all to be deep fried with bones so crisp you can chew them is a rather scrawny creature with dried-out flesh that tastes like shredded paper. Our group is not as impressed as their Times guru was by minced shrimp cake under a crackling rectangle of chicken skin. Sorry Sam, the shrimpy part just seems bland and rubbery after that ethereal crab egg custard.  And by the time the pork soup with mustard greens and tofu is dished up, I’ve already had too much deep fried chicken and everything else to more than taste.

This squid stir fry is a fine balance of tangy, sweet and chewy. Photo: Steven Richter

        Indeed, most of our group is looking somewhat stunned. I suppose that’s why everyone but me and Steven is neglecting one of the evening’s stellar stir-fries – corkscrews of squid tossed with pickled mustard green, black bean and slivers of hot red pepper – sweet, salty, chewy and hot.

         Warm green bean soup, not the haricot vert we know, but a small green bean, is one of those Chinese desserts that remain inscrutable to me. Canned lichee and pineapple will have to do for innocents like us.

Crisp fried chicken with browned garlic bits; if only we were still hungry. Photo: Steven Richter

        “I’ve learned one thing tonight,” George Lang announces, “don’t come to Flushing in a tie. You will get it messy.”

       “I usually tuck my tie into the shirt,” Michael agrees, as he calculates the bill, $61 each, credit cards accepted.  “These days the tie cost more than the shirt.”

       Bottom line: Should you truck out to Flushing? Yes, if like me, every once in a while you feel the need for adventure. And bring a friend who speaks Cantonese.

136-13 37th Avenue (off Main Street) Flushing, New York. 718 939 3501. Seven days a week 11:30 am to midnight.

 Click here to read my early Chinese restaurant roundups from New York magazine: High Rent Chinese (September 27, 1971), Star Struck at Hunam (October 1, 1973) and A Scrutable Guide to New York's Chinese Restaurants (April 2, 1979)

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