It's weekend prime time at the new Elite Restaurant in downtown Monterey Park and the place is packed. Come on a weekday and the crowds are about the same. Unless you arrive when Elite opens, you'll probably have a short wait in the foyer decorated with a double-masted jade dragon boat and portraits of Egyptian queens.
When the hostess calls our number, we follow her toward our table. As we approach, the tablecloth is changed, fresh plates seem to fly through the air, landing micro-seconds before we arrive, just as someone slaps down the final touch: chopsticks. It all happens so fast, it's like a magic trick. Ta da.
A smiling waiter is immediately at our service, pouring tea before he runs off to the kitchen with our penciled order. We barely have time to take a sip of the strong fragrant tea before the first dim sum arrive. Snuggled in their steamer, the har gow look ready for a blogger's portrait. The shrimp are pink and meaty, steamed just enough to give them a satisfying soft crunch when you bite into them. The shrimp fit as naturally in their dreamy soft dough as fava beans in their pod. These har gow are about as perfect as I've ever tasted.
Steamed spareribs with black beans and chile are subtly remarkable too, the nuggets of pork on the bone sweet and tender, adorned only with a few black beans and slivers of fiery red and green chile. Shiu mai are a savory mix of roughly chopped shrimp and pork stuffed into a Fortuny-pleated wrapper the color of old ivory. The crowning touch is a dab of orange roe.
Dim sum chef Zhi Xiong Tan used to work at the Kitchen in Alhambra, another newish top address for dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley. Tan's master hand shows in the exquisite delicacy and balance of the dim sum at Elite. Everything is fresh, beautifully crafted, with subtle twists in garnishes or ingredients that make even old dim sum hands sit up and take notice.
The plates keep coming until practically the entire tabletop is covered. The rice noodle with shrimp and asparagus is like bites of cloud woven with slender asparagus and those rosy, barely cooked shrimp. I'm tempted by pan-fried turnip cake in X.O. sauce. I love the heat of the pungent salt-laden sauce against the bland turnip cake, but wish the cake wasn't quite so oily. Fried shrimp dumpling looks amazing, like shrimp encased in crushed rice crispies. The waiter snips them in two with her scissors, and they crackle. The dough is crisp, but greasy — good greasy, but greasy nevertheless.
Can somebody please pass the rice noodle? I polish off the last piece of soft, yielding dough wrapped around fresh asparagus and shrimp. It's so delicious, I actually consider ordering another round, but no, that would be too much of a good thing. And there's much more to come.
A young couple is now installed at the next table. The father holds his baby on his knee, the baby's head snuggled up against the skull and crossbones on his black T-shirt. Just when I'm wishing I had a camera, our shark fin and red clam dumplings arrive and in one bite become my new favorites. Who can resist these sublime dumplings decorated with rich, gelatinous needle-like strands of shark fin and a slice of red clam? Sea cucumber wrapped in bamboo pith is not the prettiest dim sum. (The bamboo pith looks like limp cheesecloth.) But give it a try. The flavors are rich and nuanced.
We decide we need some congee, a big bowl of the rice porridge laced with ribbons of cabbage and diced pork and preserved egg. Dose it with soy sauce and chile paste and it's terrific, so much so that we decide to order some as take-out for breakfast the next day.
All morning, waiters have been circling the room with small trays carrying special items, but having already ordered too much, we've waved them on by. Until I catch a glimpse of saffron-gold egg custards. The custard has a shivery wiggle to it, the molecules of egg yolk barely held together in a flaky dough with as many layers as mille-feuille. I have a second one.
If I could, I'd stretch out my research at Elite over several months. How do I explain to my editor that I had to try the dim sum, oh say, eight times? It would take three visits easily to make your way through the dim sum menu. And then there's dinner.
Elite occupies the former New Concept space, which is much smaller than the grand dim sum palaces in town. The new owners upgraded the décor with bamboo-patterned wallpaper and tasseled gold brocade curtains. A tall sideboard holds wine bottles, a handful of not-so-interesting California and French wines, unless an Opus One for $238 piques your fancy. You're better off drinking Tsingtao or bringing your own wine. I just wish someone would turn down the overhead lighting.
Dinner is a treat too, and the service again is top-notch. For a first visit, the pricey bird's nests, shark fin and abalone are best appreciated by those versed in the subtleties of texture and other elusive qualities. Among the appetizers, I recommend the Macau roasted pork cut roughly the size of mah-jongg tiles and fanned out in two rows on the plate. The skin is crackling crisp, the flesh pink and moist, with a delicate flavor. Soy sauce chicken is wonderful too, the hacked chicken bathed in a gentle brown sauce that holds all sorts of complexities.
Braised Chinese eggplant, the night's special, is stuffed with a shrimp paste that resembles an ethereal quenelle. It's a beautiful dish. Another special, minced seafood in iceberg lettuce cups, turns out to be seafood — mostly shrimp — folded into fluffy egg whites. The effect is something between a quenelle and an egg-white omelet; it's curiously delicate and delicious. One must here is deep-fried baby pigeon. You'll need one for every two people. The skin is crisp as Pekin duck, and the bird beneath has a deep, full flavor.
Cantonese cuisine is celebrated for its refined seafood. It's no surprise to find live seafood here, but Elite's kitchen has a particularly delicate touch. Steamed live prawns are always a treat, and you can't get them fresher than this. The house special lobster is terrific — steamed, then wok-fried with butter and lots of cracked black pepper, garlic and a touch of ginger. Our 4 1/2-pound Maine lobster, along with pea shoots cooked in a little broth and a classic fried rice, makes a splendid feast. We eat and eat, which seems to be the story at Elite day and night.
It's a disappointment to see a B rating prominently displayed in the window. Still, I find myself calculating exactly how long it takes to get here at various times of the day, the food is that satisfying.
I'm sure everybody in the San Gabriel Valley who cares about Chinese food is doing the same. An excellent new restaurant is something to celebrate. As we get up to leave, I can sense the flap of the tablecloth as it's whisked off behind me and another is unfurled in its place. So the tables turn.
Location: 700 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 282-9998.
Ambience: Monterey Park Chinese restaurant with better-than-standard décor and extraordinarily good dim sum and dinner offerings. The crowd is multigenerational and enthusiastic, and there's often a wait for a table.
Service: Top-notch. The dining room operates with military precision.
Price: Dim sum, $2 to $6; appetizers, $6 to $32; chef's recommendations, $11 to $16; soups, $11 to $68; live seafood, market price; vegetable and tofu dishes, $11 to $15; rice and noodles, $11 to $13; dessert, $2 to $10; whole roast suckling pig, $180 (needs two days' notice).
Best dishes: Dim sum (rice noodle with asparagus and shrimp, pork and preserved egg congee, shark fin and clam dumpling, vegetable dumpling, egg custard, Macau roast pork, etc.), soy sauce chicken, eggplant stuffed with shrimp, minced seafood with lettuce cups, deep-fried baby pigeon, pea shoots in broth, house special lobster.
Wine list: Minimal. Drink Tsingtao beer instead. Or, consider bringing your own wine. Corkage, $15 for the table.
Best table: One near the window.
Details: Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for dim sum, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 5 to 10 p.m. daily for dinner. Beer and wine. Lot parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.