The culinary culture of the Bay Area has been greatly influenced by the Chinese ever since the first large wave of immigrants arrived in the mid-nineteenth century as gold miners and laborers for the Transcontinental Railroad. The Americans who worked with them commented on their strongly flavored dishes and the peculiar emphasis they placed on food in daily life. While their white counterparts asked for little more than beef, potatoes and whiskey for their food rations, the Chinese requested a variety of fresh vegetables and seafood, and even designated certain people as chefs who not only cooked the meals, but kept pens of chickens and pigs and collected ingredients from the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Sacramento that were growing at a rapid rate. While some of these people went back to China after their work was finished, many chose to stay in California, and opened up Chinese restaurants or “chop suey houses” as they were often called. They catered primarily to non-Asian customers by toning down flavors and using easily found ingredients. One and a half centuries later, the Bay Area is now home to a number of establishments that serve excellent Chinese cuisine, with one of the most vibrant being right here in downtown Palo Alto.
I usually tend to shy away from Asian (especially Chinese) restaurants that cater to American diners because the food often lacks the sparkle of the real thing. Generally, the place with the least amount of Western influence (and the most grammatically incorrect menus) will guarantee good food. Service is usually not given much attention, which is why until now I never really expected much more than passable service from a Chinese restaurant. Though it took a while, I have now finally found a place that threw all of these generalizations out the window, and best of all, it’s right in our own backyard.
Tai-Pan, on Waverly Street in downtown Palo Alto, is anything but your run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, something which is evident as soon as you walk through the door. The décor is an elegant blend of European and Asian styles, with beautiful French curtains and Chinese art gracing the dining room, and the creamy yellow walls are adorned with white crown molding. The unique blend of East and West was very refreshing, but it made me all the more curious about how the food would be.
As soon as we entered the restaurant, we were warmly greeted by owners Christopher Chan and his wife Jeannie Lee, who immediately took us to our table. As soon as we were seated, we were brought a pot of jasmine tea, which was of very good quality. It refreshed the palette as we perused the two menus. The first is an abbreviated menu that consists of dishes catered more towards Western diners, while the second is a much larger menu focused mostly around Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine, which is notoriously more delicate and elaborate than other styles of Chinese cooking. The selection of choices was impressive, including sought-after Chinese delicacies such as abalone (the menu offers two varieties) and shark’s fin, as well as many dishes that featured ingredients not commonly found in Chinese restaurants here in the States, like pea-shoots and conpoy, or dried scallops.
On our first visit, we started out with the shark’s fin soup with crab meat, a typical Hong Kong “banquet style” opener. Shark’s fin itself has no flavor, but instead is used for its remarkable texture, and also for its prestige as a sought-after ingredient amongst Chinese chefs. As a result, the success of a shark’s fin soup depends on the quality of the broth used to make the soup. Tai-Pan’s version of this classic dish was very delicate, yet seemed to lack the punch of savory umami flavors that characterize this classic dish. A splash of their homemade soy-sauce helped to correct the seasoning, but it could have been better. It was warm and satisfying, and the soft shreds of crab meat worked well with the gelatinous crunch of the shark’s fin. Not a bad way to start a meal, but it certainly left me waiting for more.
Whatever disappointments caused by the soup vanished from my mind as our main dishes started to arrive. The first one was Chicken in a Clay Pot, which arrived at our table sizzling in a heated earthenware dish. Large morsels of bone-in chicken (you can also request for it to be made with boneless chicken breast), onions, shiitake mushrooms, and a few pieces of lop cheong, a cured and slightly sweet Chinese sausage, were braised together in a delicate sauce flavored with ginger and oyster-sauce until all the flavors melded together beautifully. The dish was a winner with steamed rice.
Another great dish was the Steamed Tofu with Seafood. For this item, a large block of silken tofu is gently steamed and topped with a delicate, thickened sauce with small pieces of shrimp, scallops, and vegetables. The server explained that the dish is deliberately under-salted, so that we can enjoy it with the restaurant’s spectacular homemade soy sauce, which was presented in a beautiful covered silver bowl.
Tai-Pan also has several excellent seafood dishes, with one of my favorites being the Shanghai-style Crab. The legs are fried and served salt and pepper style, while the sweet crab meat is gently sautéed with egg whites and topped with a yolk that is stirred-in by the server tableside. The presentation of the dish was impressive, with a large mound of crab meat topped with a golden egg yolk, and surrounded by the crisp legs and claws.
On later visits, I also tried the Honey-smoked Sea Bass, upon the recommendation of Jeannie, who was always willing to make suggestions. It was absolutely fabulous. The sea bass filet was meltingly tender, and glistened with a slightly sweet glaze. A creamy mayonnaise-based sauce was served with the fish, but was really not necessary. The fish by itself was in perfect harmony with the gentle flavors of honey, smoke, and spices.
Vegetarians have plenty of options at Tai-Pan, but be sure to let the waiter or waitress know that you are, as several of the vegetable dishes are prepared with meat stocks. They happily accommodated the needs of a vegetarian who dined in our party. A favorite of mine are the pea-shoots blanched until tender in a rich stock and garnished with tender cloves of golden-brown roasted garlic.
Most people usually don’t associate good desserts with Chinese restaurants, but again, Tai-Pan is able to break that stereotype. I am currently in love with their mango pudding. The deftly sweetened pudding has the unmistakable aroma and flavor of fresh mango, and is topped with a crown of half and half to add even more creaminess to the already rich pudding. It came served in a champagne flute, which held just the right amount.
All in all, Tai-Pan is an eye-opening dining experience that blends traditional Hong Kong cuisine with an upscale, contemporary atmosphere. While it may not be a restaurant that college students can afford to dine at often, it is a great choice for a special occasion. Go with a large group and order a variety of dishes. By bringing together the best of the East and West, Tai-Pan has elevated Chinese cuisine to an exciting new level of sophistication. If there was ever such a thing as Chinese haute-cuisine, this is definitely it.
[2.5 stars out of 4]
560 Waverly St., Palo Alto
Reservations recommended on weekends and holidays.
Ample parking is available in nearby lots. Accessible via Marguerite by getting off at the Caltrain station and walking to downtown Palo Alto.
$: less than 15 dollars
$$: 15-30 dollars
$$$: 30-45 dollars
* Average cost of an appetizer and entrée, excluding tax and service.