Food: Upscale Chinese seafood banquet at Champagne 

Could any critics be tougher than the Chinese themselves when they are reviewing a Chinese restaurant?

The majority expect low prices, high quality, lots of variety and efficient service — and they don’t drink.

To succeed, a big Chinese operation has to be packed, and even then the profit margin is so slim, it is a miracle that any are able to stay in business.

Recently, Champagne Seafood Restaurant took over the former location of 3-year-old Joy Luck.

The new owners rebuilt the whole space, turning it into a posh Chinese restaurant with wood paneling, carpeting, many flat TVs mounted high, and wall-sized framed screens that serve as backdrops for birthday and wedding celebrations.

The new decor muffles noise, and the huge, high ceilinged room has a relaxing, nonfrenetic demeanor.

An attentive wait staff in black suits and white shirts keeps a watchful eye on dirty plates. After all, Champagne, a transliteration of its Chinese name, “shang pin,” which means “top class” or “imperial,” aims to be upscale.

My introduction to Champagne took place in the small private dining room, which has tall windows, soft leather couches, a pale chartreuse paint job and a really big flat-screen TV, then tuned to the NBA final.

The irrepressible Al Cheng, whose eating group calls itself The Eleven Insatiables, had arranged a banquet.

Among the best dishes were a double-rich squab broth, elegantly clear but rich in flavor; a sublime Pacific lobster, its sweet flesh removed from its tail and steamed in a snowy egg-white custard, and bite-sized fresh-water bass filets wrapped around yellow chives and ginger, served with wok-seared snap peas.

Other highlights included a moist, crisp-skinned roast chicken; squares of creamy egg tofu (a Japanese tofu made with egg and soy milk), deep fried and tossed with brown mushrooms and baby bok choy; and steamed lotus leaf packages of fluffy seafood rice.

A young coconut filled with chilled, barely sweet, fresh coconut gelatin made for a light and refreshing dessert.

With geoduck clam service (sashimi and fried body) that was not quite fresh enough, an abalone course, a half suckling pig, fried duck jaws and two additional desserts, the meal came to $130 a person including tip, tax and corkage of many bottles.

Augmented by impeccable service, this evening was well worth the price.

A big, tasty lunch costs much less, about $25 a person including generous tip and tax.

Champagne’s unusually delicate shrimp roe-topped sui mai, pork dumplings ($2.60); refined Chiu Chow sharks fin shaped dumpling ($3.50) with an integrated filling that includes peanuts and chives; and tender, voluptuous chicken feet with black bean sauce ($2.60), are downright bargains.

There are crispy fried taro puffs, naturally sweet scallop dumplings, lovely har gow (shrimp dumplings) seasoned with a whisper of sesame oil, and excellent jook, rice porridge, which I had with tender surf clam and frog’s legs. We sprinkled on pickled vegetables and deep fried tofu squares with fried garlic chips as garnish.

I don’t know whether Champagne will take hold in San Mateo or not, but as a Chinese-food-loving Caucasian, I hope it does.

Two visits can’t put a dent in the vast menu; I want to try many other dishes. Civilized Champagne is a business-class ticket to the south Chinese world of food.

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.


Champagne Seafood Restaurant

Location: 88 E. Fourth Ave., San Mateo

Contact: (650) 343-6988

Hours: Dim sum from 11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, from 10 a.m. Saturdays-Sundays; dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Price range: $2.60 to $38

Recommended dishes: Steamed lobster in egg white; double squab broth; egg tofu with bok choy and brown mushrooms, jook, sui mai, chicken feet with black beans, chiu chow dumplings, young coconut pudding

Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa

Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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