Visitors first arriving in SF are typically advised to visit one of the city’s famed taquerias for what their San Franciscan friend has described as “the best burrito in the whole damn world.” This – and perhaps some touristy seafood spot – are the first go-tos for quintessentially SF meals, but true natives, especially members of the 21.4% who are Chinese-American, are likely to have some other ideas.
Dim sum, also known as yum cha (“drink tea”), is quite possibly my favorite cuisine of all time. To be clear, I am half Chinese, San Francisco-born, and my dad lives in Hong Kong. So this food, consisting of a multitude of small dishes, primarily dumplings which were originally created to accompany teatime, holds a particularly special place in my heart. Throughout my lifetime, I have eaten thousands on har gow, cha siu bao, jiaozi, cheung fun, and other bite-sized dim sum dishes, so when I want to show a visitor what San Francisco food is really about, dim sum is always on the agenda.
With Palette Tea House’s Ghirardelli Square location, one might incorrectly assume that this high-end dim sum spot is aimed at the tourist crowd. While there’s no denying that the menu has been simplified for non-Chinese visitors, general manager Dennis Leung says he is undoubtedly focused on serving dim sum to the local community, first and foremost.
When SFist came by to snap a few photos (and gorge on vibrantly-colored dumplings), Leung could be seen darting back-and-forth as he attended to every guest, which included one of the owners of Yank Sing, and the famed Cecilia Chang whose long-gone restaurant The Mandarin is regarded as America’s first venue for high-end Chinese cuisine.
“People visiting San Francisco are a bonus. It’s more about the people who live around here, who want to come in and eat this as neighborhood food,” Leung said. “We want to make sure they really feel like they are being taken care of.”
But certainly, this is not your traditional dim sum house. It's no Lai Hong Lounge with a menu the size of a tome. It isn’t Yank Sing, either, with pushcarts full of steaming food. Nor is it like Tong Kiang, whose modest and understated decorations have remained largely unchanged for 20+ years. This is a new type of dim sum experience, catering to the next generation of dumpling aficionados.
At its core, Palette Tea House’s food is largely traditional, but to the eye and taste buds, their chef’s small updates to old recipes craft a new culinary adventure.
A lobster “ha gow” (which, in honesty, really isn’t ha gow at all, since this character for “ha” means “shrimp”) looks like any old steamed shrimp dumpling, but protruding from one lobster morsel is a tiny syringe filled with a buttery sauce. Needless to say, it is delicious.
Palette Tea House’s cha siu plate (BBQ Pork) is made from Iberico ham (because of course it is) and is coated with a sweeter version of the glaze to which cha siu lovers are accustomed.
Palette’s very traditionally-flavored cheung fun (Rice Noodle Roll, which can be filled with a variety of meats, though I prefer shrimp) has a ‘fun’ twist, too. What this restaurant calls their “Rainbow Prawn Rice Crepe” is as visually appealing as it is pleasing to your taste buds.
The xiao long bao (soup dumplings, and here's our list of the city's best), playfully referred to as “XLB” by Millennials in the know, are actually not dim sum at all. They are Shanghainese in origin, but that hasn’t stopped virtually every successful dim sum spot from serving up this crowd-pleaser. Palette has taken XLBs to the next level. Following in the tradition of sister restaurants Koi Palace & Dragon Beaux, Palette serves up Shanghai dumplings five ways: original-style pork, crab roe with turmeric wrap, beet & pork, kale with spinach wrap, and black truffle with squid ink wrap.
The lo mai gai (Lotus Wrapped Abalone Sticky Rice) is among my favorite items included at many dim sum restaurants, and Palette’s did not fail where many others do. Though I’m still partial to Yank Sing’s sticky rice, Palette’s is certainly among SF's greats.
Wu gok (deep-fried taro puff) is a dish I’ve been eating since I was a little dumpling myself, and Palette’s isn’t altogether that different from its less avant-garde predecessor, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to chomp down on a tiny edible black swan?
This crazy meal of color, flavor, crunch, and sauce could only end one way, with far too much dessert to fit into my stomach. From the dan tat (egg custard) – made here in its original Portuguese style of “pastel de nata” which found its way into dim sum via the Portuguese colonization of Macau – to a sai yong (an egg-y donut commonly called "Chinese donut"), in this case filled with undeniable tasty Nutella.
Palette Tea House, 900 North Point St, Ste B201, in Ghirardelli Square; Open Mon-Thurs, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
For budgetary reasons, SFist editors and contributors occasionally accept complimentary meals from restaurants and their publicists. More often, we pay out of pocket for our meals. While we mostly refrain from writing formal reviews, we make every effort when giving opinions about restaurants to be objective, and to focus more on food and ambiance than service in order to make up for any possible bias.