I've always followed the edict that any restaurant recommended by two disparate sets of friends should, at the very least, be tried. So every time someone mentioned Swan Palace, I filed it away for future reference. First it was the woman who feeds my scrapbooking addiction. Later it was a playgroup mom. Before long, it seemed like every time I mentioned Swan Palace, someone in the group would say, "Oh, yeah, we love that place." A trip was in order.
So we approached with only a small amount of hesitation. We were welcomed as soon as we walked through the door, in airy and elegant surroundings. I wouldn't mind going back for a date with my husband sometime, but they certainly make kids feel welcome, too.
We started with our family favorite, steamed dumplings. These fine, fat orbs are full of ground pork that manages a pure pork flavor accented by some minced green onion, garlic and ginger. The hot and sour soup was similarly simple and delicious, with a pronounced heat and discernible sourness, rich with pepper and mushrooms.
The Ma-Po Tofu ($8.25) is a supreme treat. The silky smooth bean curd, with soft, gently cooked peas, mushrooms and carrots, looks like a beautiful dish of comfort food. Then you take a bite, and the brilliant spicy sauce snaps your eyes wide open. The menu says spicy, and this is one time the menu doesn't lie. Similarly, the Hot and Crispy Shrimp ($13.95) has an assertive but not lethal dose of heat. Here, a light batter, perhaps fortified with chopped nuts, enfolds perfectly cooked shrimp, well cooked but not grossly chewy. The sauce is pungent, both sweet and sour at the same time, which means the flavor expands all the way across your tongue.
After several years of trial and error, I can now state with certainty that mu shu anything isn't likely to make my heart pound with excitement. I don't dislike it, but it just isn't something I'm ever going to crave. But my daughter wanted to try "something different," and the idea of wrapping her dinner in little pancakes appealed to her. I must confess, this Mu Shu Pork ($8.95) was pretty darn tasty. The lean strips of pork are combined with green onions, mushrooms, carrots and other julienned vegetables to make a robust mlange. It tastes pretty fine on its own, but we all liked it even better with a schmear of the accompanying hoisin sauce, which adds a beneficial sweet note. You can also order chicken, beef or vegetables mu shu.
Of all the curries in the world, I particularly enjoy the Chinese version. It seems so simple and straightforward to me, pungent and sunny. The Curry Chicken ($8.95) at Swan Palace is a nice and simple dish. The meat is all breast, no dark meat, combined with onions and green and red bell peppers. The only disappointment was the heat. The menu labeled it spicy, and after the tofu and shrimp dishes we really had our hopes up. Unfortunately, it was fairly mild.
The one disappointment was the Ginger Lamb ($9.95). Lamb has a fresh distinctive flavor, almost sweet, and I've never met a lamb dish I didn't like. In this dish, the sliced lamb is stir fried with ginger and fresh green onions. This was the only dish that seemed to be out of balance. The flavor of ginger was so overwhelming that I could just as well have been eating beef or pork -- the flavor of the lamb itself was totally masked. Otherwise it would have been a wonderful dish, because the meat was exceptionally tender.
And what is a trip to a Chinese restaurant without someone ordering lo mein? We tried the Shrimp Lo Mein ($7.95), and finer shrimp would be hard to come by. Fresh tasting, large and plentiful were our shrimp, on a bed of sauted noodles with some julienned carrots and onion. Perfectly seasoned, perfectly soothing. I think a future trip should include the House Special Lo Mein (same price), which comes with barbecued pork, chicken, beef and shrimp.
Besides the usual standards, there are several items drawing me back to Swan Palace for another visit. One is the West Lake Beef Soup, described as "a smooth and silky beef bouillon with minced beef and topped with cilantro." Sounds like the ticket on a cold, windy day. They've also got marinated, deep-fried quail on the appetizer menu, plus Spicy Salted Squid (hey, you either like squid or you don't.). This is fried squid sprinkled with spicy salt, fresh chili peppers and green onions. Another good one for a cold day. And I also want to get around to the Black Mushroom Duck, since dark, rich duck seems to have an affinity for the earthy undertones of black mushrooms.
Now if only I can get a sitter.
5605 N. Academy Blvd.
Open Mon.-Sat.., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.