If you are looking for a clue to Shi Hai, the new Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant in Alhambra, you might find it in the cold cucumber appetizer, a dish that appears at both dim sum breakfast and at dinner. If this is your first time at the restaurant, you might be anticipating the well-garlicked hacked cucumbers you find at Shandong-style delis, or possibly something in the vein of the lightly fermented pickles from Japan.
Shi Hai's menu does after all include a decent version of the Sichuan noodle dish dan dan mian, Shanghainese string beans flash-fried with pork, whelk with Thai chile, all sorts of sashimi, and cumin lamb that might have come out of Xinxiang. Clearly the kitchen has ecumenical tastes.
But the cold cucumbers turn out to be just that — cucumbers cut into neat spears and jammed into crushed ice in a sort of vegetable Stonehenge. If the cucumbers are pickled, the cure is too subtle to taste, but they are cool and perfectly crunchy. A small saucer of soy sauce and wasabi is served alongside if you care to dip. The dish is plain. You will probably wonder why you ordered it. And then halfway through the meal, at the point when you are sated with new and unfamiliar flavors, you will be delighted to rediscover the cucumber, your chilly new friend. Occasionally, simplicity can be key.
Shi Hai is a vast, sleek restaurant just off Valley Boulevard: movie-set Art Deco lighting, a wall of live-seafood tanks and discreet indigo corridors of private banquet rooms radiating off the main dining area. You will find all of the usual Hong Kong exotica, including bird's nest, sea cucumber and "snow clam," which is actually a kind of frog organ and is usually served as dessert. If you forget to ask the price in advance, you may be shocked by the cost of a thornyhead fish fried with basil, although it will be delicious, or of a huge platter of thinly sliced geoduck sashimi, although the delicately scented rice porridge made with the rest of the geoduck could make the tab almost bearable.
The first time I went to Shi Hai, I was pretty sure I had stumbled into the best dim sum restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. The stuffed meat dumplings were first-rate, gooey domes of sticky rice flour encasing a teaspoon or so of sweet, crumbled pork, and the tiny almond-crusted shrimp balls were unusually light and crisp. There were translucent rice noodles, steamed to that knife's edge between solid and liquid, wrapped around crunchy, freshly fried crullers that in turn were stuffed with a kind of shrimp mousse, an excellent version of a congee-house classic. Braised chicken feet were soft and lightly gelatinous; siu mai were loosely packed and deeply porky.
I had never tasted anything quite like the restaurant's surf-clam dumplings, rounded out with shrimp and a sprinkling of crab roe, exploding into hot, briny juice. I loved the chewy, golden pancakes studded with crisp bits of cured meat. Even the plain, steamed spare ribs with black pepper were among the best of the breed.
Over my next few dim sum breakfasts there, I was happy with a big, pleated pork dumpling that collapsed into its saucer of broth, the crackly snow-top buns filled with sweet custard and the seared patties of chopped shrimp and herbs. No dim sum restaurant in town makes better pork-bone congee.
The shrimp dumplings called har gao on the other hand were a bit clumsy, perhaps too big to cook evenly without oversteaming its noodle skin, and the baked barbecued pork buns were limp. In some Hong Kong-style restaurants, pig neck is the best possible kind of pork, both juicy and crisp, but at Shi Hai the meat was flabby and drowned in sugary sauce. At dinner one night, a fish head casserole was pasty with unemulsified cornstarch, and a soy-braised duck tasted a little tired, as if it had been better at lunch. Japanese eel fried rice, a fixture on the restaurant's expensive banquet menus, had sweet, musky overtones that were not entirely pleasant — although I like the seafood-intensive house fried rice well enough.
But Shi Hai may be at its best when it is at its simplest, where the quality of the ingredients is allowed to shine through, whether it is the deeply flavored roast "suckling" pigeon that manages to be both crisp-skinned and succulent, a plate of Chinese chives stir-fried with dried seafood or cold fried smelt brushed with a few drops of chile oil. You don't have to order the braised fish lips with mushrooms to have a good time.
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1412 S. Garfield Ave., Alhambra, (626) 282-3888
Dim sum, $2.88-$6.88. Dinner: cold dishes $5.99-$9.99, barbecue $12.99-$29.99, chef's specials $10.99-$20.99, more for bird's nest and live seafood.
Open 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Lot parking.