Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ocean Palace: a mixed blessing

Ocean Palace, on Central Ave. about a block to the west of the Everett Road exit, used to be my favorite place to get authentic Chinese food in the Albany area. It still has a Biblical menu and there are always people there: a mix of Chinese folks and Caucasians. They have a very bizarre movie screen in the back that inoffensively plays inexplicable Chinese videos (landscapes and such), but this is easily avoidable, because there's plenty of seating at the front.

You really have to know how and what to order here, and it would help to know Chinese, but there are so many wonderful dishes that you really can't find anywhere else that it's worth wading through some of the not-so-great stuff. Highlights are a whole section of the menu is devoted to Chinatown Style Noodle Soups; there's also a hotpot section of the menu, as well as lots of salt dishes, like salted flounder; pepper w/salty scallop. There are, of course, the typical Americanized offerings like General Tso's chicken, fried or steamed dumplings, and spring rolls. You'll also find the more exotic-sounding Sweet Corn Soup with Fish Maw and Virginia Ham Soup with Fish Maw, which I've never ordered, but it's nice to know I could if I wanted to. I watched someone bring the soy sauce chicken (or maybe it was duck? hard to tell) to a young man, and it looked fabulous. That's the really good news.

Their dim sum is less impressive, with more of a greasy quotient. Another thing to realize about Ocean Palace is that their take-out menu contains maybe only half of the choices you'll find in the restaurant. You have to be there to know about offerings like Fresh Lily Bulb with Tofu in Special with Sauce [sic] (I think that one should win an award for most poetic entrée), or Blue Crab with Ginger and Scallion, as well as a range of lobster dishes and, the other night, Dungeness crab as a special.

Ocean Palace still rivals Emperor's for my number one Chinese restaurant. However, they seem to be experiencing some kind of change in management; the other night, the waiters seemed incredibly clueless (we were not the only diners who had to call our waiter over so we could order), and some of the dishes, like Chinese broccoli, were not as good as expected: the broccoli was cooked a minute or so too long, and they used to serve it with a garlicky sauce, whereas the other night it just came in blah oyster sauce.

Once we did catch the waitress's attention, she seemed bashful and overly attentive, and she made a valiant effort to answer my questions about types of sauce on various shrimp dishes. However, her attention to diners was still pretty erratic throughout the evening. And, at the end of the evening, she asked us if we wanted special "Chinese orange" slices; they're extra sweet. Um right; as opposed to those radically different American oranges?! Come on. I hope they get their service straightened out, but in the meantime, be prepared.

The other night, I ordered the Pepper with Salty Shrimp, which came with grilled onions, chives, and jalapenos and were quite good. The only problem (and you may feel less squeamish about this) was that all the yummy salt breading was on the outside, on the shell of the shrimp. I suppose I could have sucked it off, but I just didn't feel like it, so quite the struggle ensued so that I could de-shell the shrimp without losing all the flavor.

My all-time favorite thing to get at Ocean palace is the black-bean sauce sea bass, which used to appear with regularity on their specials board; it wasn't available the other night (although it might be the kind of thing you can ask for, if you can get through to the waitstaff, since they did have steamed sea bass available). My other favorite dish is the yellow chive chow fun; simple but heavenly. My dinner partner got the orange beef off the Schzechuan menu, which was more like your standard greasy spoon Chinese restaurant fare, although not so bad. Their noodle dishes (like chow funs and Singapore Chow Mei Fun) are pretty darn good most of the time, and they have a large vegetarian section with tofu and other dishes. I'll definitely go back and report on how they're doing; they have all the ingredients for greatness.

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