388 9th Street #288
Oakland, CA 94612
If you go to many Chinatowns, especially those in American suburbs like the San Gabriel Valley or Houston, you will hear a preponderance of Mandarin being spoken. Much of this is due to immigration of Taiwanese in the past few decades combined with a newer wave of Mainland Chinese people in those areas. Because of this, the last bastion of Cantonese dominant Chinese enclaves is the first major American metropolitan area that people in Guangdong province settled in: the San Francisco Bay Area. Therefore, I thought the perfect place to start my blogging of Bay Area Asian food as a resident is an older Cantonese restaurant that has reinvented itself anew again.
Peony Seafood Restaurant sits at the second floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, a mixed-use center built in 1993 at a time when Hong Kong developers poured money to build new, gleaming Chinese catering strip malls up and down California. In its previous incarnation starting in the 1990s, Peony was one of many Hong Kong style seafood palaces opening up serving dim sum on carts at lunch and upscale Cantonese food for dinner. However, by the early years of the decade the restaurant had become warn and stale, with a number of complaints on review sites like Yelp stating its mediocre food, high prices, iffy cleanliness, and dwindling clientele. The restaurant subsequently closed in 2013.
However, in 2014 it reopened again under new management. While the restaurant’s basic format didn’t change – it still served dim sum at lunch and seafood dishes for dinner – the presentation, menu, and service did. Gone were the carts of old, replaced by a dim sum checklist menu similar of more modern, higher quality places in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. The restaurant received good reviews so I decided to give it a couple of tries when friends of mine were in town. The following were some of the dishes I got throughout my visits and my thoughts:
- Shrimp Dumpling – The overall flavors of the dish are strong, including the freshness of the shrimp. However, the har gows here suffer from too much of a good thing as the mix of the shrimp and the relative thinness of the rice flour dumpling wrapper means that the skin falls apart easily. A for effort but a C in terms of execution.
- Siu Mai – I think the siu mai is pretty good here with a nice mixture of pork, shrimp, and mushrooms. The flavors are nice, albeit the pork might be too dense.
- Chinese Broccoli With Oyster Sauce – My go to palate cleanser at American dim sum restaurants and Peony does these right. I’m not sure what they exactly do, but it tastes like they blanched the Chinese broccoli and quickly stir fry it to give is a slightly crispy and slightly crunchy bit. With oyster sauce on the side, their version allows the stems and leaves to be perfectly enjoyed.
- Sugar Egg Puff – While I’m always disappointed when a place gives you egg puffs before you finish the savory parts of your meal, these are probably the 2nd or 3rd best versions of this I have tried in the Bay Area, after the vaunted Cooking Papa (which does wait until you finish with the savory dishes!)
- Steam Custard Buns – While “Quicksand buns” (流沙包) are all the rage for dessert at more modern dim sum places, Peony doesn’t have them. Instead they have these steam custard buns which come with a more liquid rich custard filling that feels like a cross between the “quicksand” buns and the more traditional custard buns.
While it’s really hard to flag someone down for service here, the food is good and definitely better than its previous incarnation. The above average food does also come with above average prices, though, so be warned if you’re used to prices at older dim sum palaces that still use carts. And while I won’t say that Peony competes toe to toe with Hong Kong Lounge II as the best Dim Sum in the Bay Area, it currently shines over East Ocean in Alameda as the best dim sum I have had recently in the East Bay.