Tom kha gai or hot and sour? Pad thai or chow mein? Sometimes it’s a brutal decision. Families have fractured over less: will it be Thai or Chinese?
Well, dear conflicted people, now you don’t have to choose. Last January, the Royal Thai Dining Lounge picked up and moved across the street, from 272 to 311 Dalhousie, home of Palais Imperial. No need for panic. This is not fusion cuisine. No coconut curry sauce will bathe the Peking duck. This is the partnership of two long-running restaurants, both under the same ownership, now living under the same roof but with a strong pre-nup. (Separate bedrooms, if you will.) Each has its own chef, its unique kitchen and distinct menu – albeit now bound as one. The yellow side of the long document is Royal Thai’s, the green, Palais Imperial.
What they do share is a dining room, a bright, two-level space, still with its wall of windows overlooking the comings and goings of busy Dalhousie Street. And based on a couple of recent meals there, I think it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
If you want dim sum for lunch, don’t make the mistake of leaving the menu on the table. That signifies your plan is to order Ã la carte. Our trouble was in wanting both, and this required some explaining. We were told we could keep the menu, but best to tuck it away, on the window ledge, so it wouldn’t be visible. Presto! The carts began to roll up, stacked with their baskets of hidden treats.
Another trick with dim sum is to pace yourself. There’s always more coming, and if you’re not selective, that which you most desire will arrive when you are incapable of ingesting another morsel. And you’ll want to come hungry: this is good dim sum. I’d say the best I’ve had in Ottawa, a far cry from the salty, greasy gunk that gets pushed around at so many other big places around town.
We start with dumplings – pork and cilantro stuffed in some, crab and shrimp in another, shrimp and snow peas in a third, their translucent skins delicate. Then steamed pork buns, lumpy, fluffy, white buns of cakey yumminess, filed with red char siu. Lo mai gai is sticky rice and sweet pork moistened with egg, wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. Taro dumplings are divine – a moist core of pork and shrimp covered with cooked, mashed taro, rolled in what looks like shredded wheat, and fried to just the right degree of greasiness. Egg tarts are happily not too sweet, a pale yellow custard within a many layered, crumbly crust. Along with this feast, we order fish, steamed sea bass, superb in its gentle ginger broth.
You’d be wise to pay attention to the specials on offer. We did and were rewarded with a trio of solidly good dinner dishes: braised chicken smeared with ginger, bubbling in a clay cauldron; monster shrimp in a dry red curry, the seafood crunchy sweet and perfectly spicy; and Chinese broccoli, steamed to crisp in a fragrant broth of stock, soy, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil. From the menu, we chose Singapore noodles, which were fine, and barbecued pork tenderloin, which is very good indeed, the pink slices tender and well flavoured.
Before this, there were spring rolls generously packed with chopped shrimp and scallions, served with a homemade dipping sauce. And after all this, from the dessert page, sesame seed balls that look (and pull) like seed-studded silly putty. These arrive warm, the sweet, glutinous pastry wrapped in toasted seeds, and with a sweet bean paste at their core. They’re nicer to eat than to look at.
Palais Imperial/Royal Thai’s wine list offers a few decent choices for matching with this food, though the by-the-glass option is pathetically limited to Kressman, red or white. Beer might be the better bet, or else stick with tea.