It took just a minute to size up the Hong Kong Islander once we were inside.
“This feels very Chinese – not Chinese-American – like we’re stepping into another culture,” said my dining-savvy lunch pal, who spends an inordinate amount of time in restaurants.
Agreed. The first clues were the wall-mounted daily-specials menu boards written in Chinese; the live tanks holding Maine lobsters, Dungeness crabs and flitting fish; and the muted TV sets tuned to Chinese stations.
Then there’s the restaurant’s distinctive décor – silk-covered walls, gold-colored accents and statuary, mirrored wood pillars and an amazing light feature that’s loosely covered in a billowing, gauzelike cloth panel as big as a sail. There’s even a heavily decorated raised stage.
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As for the Islander’s size, if you moved the tables, you could film episodes of “Dancing with the Stars” in the two high-ceilinged dining rooms. The restaurant can accommodate 600 people, and regularly fills for banquets, wedding receptions and other special occasions.
The building formerly housed a seafood buffet, said hostess-cashier Candy Lau. Her husband, Conrad Lau, is one of the Islander’s co-owners.
“We remodeled the whole restaurant and opened a year ago,” she said on the phone.
We arrived too late for the 72-item dim sum menu or the 25-item lunch menu ($6 to $9), so ordered from the never-ending dinner menu (which works at lunch, too; $5 to $26). For fun, we also explored the group and banquet menus (the ones in English), ranging from $38.88 to $699.
We thought starters of shredded jellyfish and sea cucumber were a bit esoteric for a weeknight, and the kitchen was out of boneless squab, so we settled on minced chicken that we spooned into crisp, cold iceberg lettuce “cups,” adding plum sauce. That tasty dish was followed by so-so fried calamari rings and tentacles, fresh-tasting but somewhat oily and underseasoned.
We weren’t hungry enough for a suckling pig, so we sampled honey-roasted pork neck (sliced to include a layer of silken fat, which is traditional); wide chow-fun noodles spiked with crispy pieces of duck; spareribs with spicy salt (crisp strips of really good battered-and-fried boneless pork); and Szechuan-style ginger-scented eggplant with tender sea scallops, served sizzling in a clay pot.
The showstopper was a huge and succulent fillet of baked skin-on sea bass, glazed to a crisp on the outside (did we taste five-spice powder?), remarkably tender and juicy on the inside. Really, this was the best piece of fish we’ve seen all year.
“If they brought this sea bass out of the kitchen and into the dining room at a place like Mulvaney’s B&L, (the diners) would give a standing ovation,” said the lunch pal.
During our meal, we kept wondering about the daily-specials menu boards in Chinese. We asked a passing server what the dishes were, but he verbally waved us off.
“Those are things Westerners aren’t accustomed to eating,” he said, looking out for our best interests. “Some people don’t like the smells. I can’t recommend them to you.”
We felt like strangers in a strange land. Determined, we enlisted the aid of a mother and her adult daughter who were dining at a nearby table. They graciously translated what they could of the Chinese into English, though subtleties were lost in transition. Hmm – salted fish, beef stomach, fish steamed in vinegar, some kind of soup, exotic vegetables we’d never heard of.
One dish sparked our curiosity – Mount Pear Bones.
“That’s the translation, but we don’t know what (the dish) is,” said the daughter.
We asked our gracious server to bring it on. Turned out to be the second-best item on the table – pieces of sweet, well-seasoned pork rib meat (beware the bones) in dark, deeply flavored sauce, with red and green bell pepper and onion. We spooned it over steamed white rice. We didn’t feel estranged anymore.
At meal’s end, over slices of juicy orange, we cracked open fortune cookies. The message in one of them reflected the spirit of the meal: “If you understand what you’re doing, you’re not learning anything.”
Saison makes magazine’s top-10
The swank food-centric magazine Bon Appetit has announced its top-10 list of best new restaurants in the United States.
Coming in at No. 2 is Saison in San Francisco, the only California entry. Menu-wise, there’s only one choice – the 18-course prix-fixe dinner for $248. The wine pairing is an additional $148. That’s per person, not per family reunion.
Recent dinners have included sesame-seed soufflé, smoked caviar-topped corn pudding, gold leaf-topped Parmesan custard, abalone liver stew (what do they do with the good part?), wood pigeon, dry-aged duck and sablefish poached in seawater.
Saison is at 178 Townsend St.; (415) 828-7990, www.saisonsf.com.
For the complete restaurant list, go to www.bonappetit.com and scroll down to the “Hot” headline.