Restaurant Peony, Oakland CA
Restaurant Peony has been the recipient of numerous local awards, including the Best of Oakland 2013 Best Dim Sum. This was what got our attention for dinner tonight, because Zach had never tried dim sum before. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that dim sum is only available for lunch. All the same, since we were already here, we didn’t want to waste an opportunity – if they’ve won Best Dim Sum, other items on the menu must be just as good.
So we have to be honest, we got a little lost looking for Restaurant Peony. Thankfully, a helpful Chinatown resident directed us to the second floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza. Since it was somewhat difficult for us to find our destination, we though that if you, reader, were to venture out to try this place, you might appreciate some landmark shots to help guide the way inside the plaza.
The menu is a little daunting if you don’t read Chinese, but towards the back is the bilingual dinner menu with some items more familiar to us as well as the more traditional, which is what we came here to try.
Jellyfish was new for Zach, and August coaxed him into it by describing it as a type of salad. She had had it before, the very first time she tried dim sum for a lunch stop on a high school field trip to San Francisco that included the Legion of Honor, the SFMOMA, and an exploration of Chinatown. August also tried chicken claws that time, and didn’t like them. Zach really wanted to give chicken claws a try tonight at Restaurant Peony, but our server told us he didn’t even like them. Thus we chose the jellyfish. It is, in taste, like a seaweed salad with a sesame dressing; the flavor was very mild, somewhat mineral, and more brackish than briny, so the sesame flavor was actually stronger than the jellyfish. The texture is best compared to thick seaweed or weak cartilage. There was a lot of crunch, but it was easy to masticate. If you were to try this without knowing what it was, you would probably enjoy it more than if you were thinking, “Oh boy, this is jellyfish!”
Already on our radar and then recommended by our server was the “Chef’s Recommendation” with duck done two ways for two distinct courses. It started with the crispy duckling being skinned at our table, which was a show of skill that ignited anticipation for the succulent bits of skin.
The super crispy skin was juicy and rich. Perfectly rendered, it was carved with just the tiniest bits of meat left underneath, and the meat was tender and light. Fluffy clam-shaped buns opened to be stuffed with slivers of fresh green onion, a sweet and piquant plum sauce, and skin, making tiny bao sandwiches. The first sandwiches we built without green onion, but when we tried with the onion, there was a huge difference. With all four elements combined, the spicy bite from the green onion brought a balance to the sweet sauce and the savory roasted duck skin that was just delightful.
A few dozen fresh and meaty clams came with sauteed peppers and onions, all tossed in a sumptuous black bean sauce with the texture of a rich gravy. It was close to the black bean sauce we’re familiar with, with onion and garlic notes, but this one was special because of the freshly chopped ginger. Ginger is hardly one of August’s favorite flavors, so she surprised herself at liking the surprise ingredient in the sauce. A plus for both of us was that the green peppers were not overly stewed in the black bean sauce, but rather they must have been added towards the end; we avoided the chunks of green pepper because we don’t like it, but the flavor itself did not permeate the dish.
The second course of the Nanjing crispy duckling was the meat of our skinned bird, diced and sauteed with an assortment of vegetables and spices, to be wrapped in lettuce leafs and smeared with the same plum sauce as before. The lettuce wraps from FP Cheng’s trail in quality compared to this, in the freshness of ingredients and, clearly, duck instead of chicken. We were excited that so much meat came from our little duckling, because this was a big pile! And, not even the whole bird was diced, since a few wing ends, leg bits, and the head were left for us to nibble on.
Service seemed a little stretched thin and we were surprised with an automatic 12% service charge, so be aware when calculating your tip because most of it is already accounted for. Now that we know where this restaurant is, and we found a couple of nearby and easily accessible parking garages, we’re definitely coming back for lunch to get the dim sum we sought. Trying dinner here was like the dry run of a stage production, gearing up for opening night. Bravo to the
cast crew, as we are very much looking forward to the dishes of main spectacle.