At first glance, Royal Palace is a typical Chinese restaurant swamped with pu pu platters and fortune cookies. The dining room has a Chinatown feel, with painted calligraphy and scrolls depicting misty mountains and bamboo forests. The hostess wears red silk with golden clasps, and the extensive menu lists thirteen chicken preparations. There are so many options that they even have a second menu.
It is here that the boredom shatters. The second menu begins with a greeting: “Dear English-speaking Customers.”
Royal Palace, it turns out, is somewhat of a holy grail. Defying the General Tso’s masses of southern Connecticut, Royal Palace turns out top-notch renditions of Cantonese and Szechuan specialties. “In response to requests,” the menu continues, “this menu is our translation into English of a menu that we usually provide only to speakers of Chinese.” Classics like lobster with ginger and scallions and clams with black bean sauce share space with sea cucumber and shark fin soup. Some of the stranger offerings are so bizarre as to be humorous. A dish of sliced beef tendon is described as “many wonderful sliced pieces of delicious beef tendon served cold and spicy,” while Romeo & Juliet, appearing on the “Special Traditional Szechuan Menu,” is none other than “beef and tripe slices.”
When we arrived at Royal Palace for a recent Sunday lunch, the restaurant was only about a third full. Located on a quiet stretch of Orange Street in the Ninth Square neighborhood, Royal Palace is a restaurant where reservations are hardly ever necessary. A waiter seated us promptly and brought us water and tea, which he diligently refilled throughout the meal. I was nominated to order for the table, and when I put down my menu our server arrived so quickly that my companions giggled.
The menu offers many conventional appetizers, ranging in price from an egg roll ($1.25) to barbecued spareribs ($7), but be prepared to pay more if you opt for the unconventional, such as a whopping $12.95 for Romeo & Juliet. Mains tend to hover around $10-13, while the more extravagant specialties, such as duck and seafood, climb into the $20 range and beyond.
The scallion pancakes ($4.25) were nothing more than standard. Served with the obligatory soy sauce dip, they were crispy on the outside and doughy in the middle. What was intriguing, however, was the presentation. Sliced into quarters, the pancakes arrived crowned with a maraschino cherry.
Luckily the pancakes were our only foray into the Americanized portion of the menu. What arrived next was an array of showstoppers, equaling and sometimes surpassing the best of Boston, New York, or even San Francisco Chinatowns. Salt baked shrimp ($14) arrived deep-fried and showered with a fragrant blend of garlic, scallions, and chilies. The light batter was crisp, while the seasonings provided a burst of fresh and pungent flavors. Steamed whole flounder ($20) was delicate, fresh and scented with ginger. My dining companions, including a self-described “picky” fish eater, wholeheartedly approved. Pea shoots sautéed with whole garlic ($13) offered a refreshing counterpoint.
The final dish was without a doubt Royal Palace’s most noteworthy offering: water beef ($13). This unusual specialty, which can also be made with chicken or fish, has developed a cult following; our waiter mentioned an ex-Yalie who, unable to locate the dish near his Boston home, always picks up three or four portions when he is passing through town. Water beef is a pungent stew consisting of stir-fried beef and bok choy flavored with garlic, mild chili paste, bean paste, and lots of whole red chilies. In spite of the plentiful chilies, one of my companions described the dish as having “a comfortable heat,” and indeed it is not only comfortable but addictive, imbued with a depth of flavor that makes it hard to stop eating. The merits of water beef do not stop there; our waiter happily noted that the dish is “even better the next day.”
While the showier dishes at Royal Palace surpass a student price range, on the whole prices are reasonable enough to make the restaurant a worthwhile trip for those in search of spectacular Chinese. Royal Palace also offers reasonable $5-7 lunch specials Monday through Saturday that include white or fried rice and a choice of soup, and they deliver anywhere within New Haven. Service is downright personable. Our waiter even confided to us that a dish euphemistically called “mouth-watering chicken” directly translates from Chinese to “saliva chicken.” And you know what? The food at Royal Palace is so good that even if it were called saliva chicken, I would probably still order it.