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I can't say enough wonderful things about Geary Boulevard's Mayflower, a Cantonese seafood/dim sum place just down the block from the gleaming domes of the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Cathedral. One finds a lot of Russians on the 6200 block of Geary: Across the street from Mayflower, a Russian salon reportedly gives some of the most painful Brazilian bikini waxes in San Francisco; another Russian shop sells groovy striped sweaters; and the last time I ate at Mayflower, my friend Alexandra and I spotted a Russian priest strolling down the sidewalk wearing a golden cross and flowing black robe. He was a young, blond guy with a thin, scruffy beard, and as he passed I couldn't help but think that, if he'd been wearing board shorts and a hoodie, he would have blended right in down in Santa Cruz. But enough about Russians; we're talking about Mayflower, which draws a largely Chinese crowd. Its pastries alone are worth a visit -- in fact, they're so immensely glorious I'm tempted to make all kinds of wild pronouncements.
San Francisco, CA 94121
Region: Richmond (Outer)
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Baby Japanese octopus--$6.50
Poached chicken in white wine sauce--$6.50
Dried scallop soup--$9
Sautéed pea sprouts--$10
Sizzling chicken in black pepper sauce-- $8
Flounder with deep-fried bones--market price
For example, I would say the pastries at Mayflower put most Western-style bakeries in this town to shame, but that would be wrong (there are a lot of fine bakeries hereabouts). So how about this: If God were to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I could eat dim sum only once more before I died, I'd contemplate going to Yank Sing for about a second, then drive past the long line at the overrated Ton Kiang on my way to Mayflower. On Sundays the wait here is equally egregious: Step into the lobby to take a number and you'll find yourself in a sort of mosh pit populated by sharp-elbowed Chinese grandmothers and the occasional culinarily adventurous Caucasian. It's a family-style place where parents hold their children up to peer into the tremendous fish tanks at lobsters, crabs, hundreds of live prawns, and club-shaped geoducks. It would be a lot like visiting an aquarium if not for the knowledge that the pretty sea creatures are all doomed. Their names are posted above the tanks in Chinese -- along with their prices by the pound.
The adventure doesn't really begin until you take a seat in the dining room, a bustling, elegant space with sweeping windows and banquet tables large enough to seat entire villages. Waiters look sharp in bow ties and black vests; they seem a friendly bunch, taking a noticeable pride in whatever tidbits they happen to be carrying. The guy with the chicken feet wore a particularly enthusiastic grin the last time I visited; he seemed to know that Alexandra and I hadn't yet acquired a taste for chicken feet, but insisted on showing them to us every time he passed. The waitstaff are like salespeople, and Lord knows they have a lot to work with: The kitchen knocks out such a broad range of dishes (up to 80 on weekends) that you should grab whatever looks good as it comes by, because you might not see it again.
The plates are endless -- traditional siu mai (open-topped pork/ shrimp dumplings) topped with pale orange lobster roe; har gau (shrimp dumplings in semitranslucent rice flour dough) infused with a dash of sesame oil; spongy shrimp balls crusted with almonds; pork dumplings accompanied by a bright red vinegar dipping sauce laced with wisps of ginger. Though I haven't tried any of the large plates Mayflower offers during dim sum -- rice porridge with frog, chow fun with conch, pan-fried noodles with shredded abalone, braised soft noodles with shrimp roe -- my faith in the restaurant runs strong. After two trips for dim sum, the only dish I'd avoid would be the tough, overly salty roasted squab.
Beyond that, the offerings range from good to undeniably excellent, the only caveat being that a few of the more authentic dishes (chicken feet, jellyfish, slip-slithery sea cucumber) will scare some people to death. I've seen starchy, Jell-O-like turnip cakes topped with walnuts and bits of pork, thick rice flour pancakes laced with scallions and chewy dried shrimp, and paper-thin spring roll skins stuffed with dried shiitakes and baby corn, served with a tangy, Worcestershire-style dipping sauce. Steamed pork buns come filled with twice as much savory-sweet flesh as you'd find at other dim sum houses. Slippery sheets of rice noodle might be stuffed with whole, plump shrimp, or perhaps barbecued pork imbued with a hint of cilantro so sharp it could slice paper. Salt and pepper prawns are stunningly crisp; some plates come with many small crustaceans, others with a few small ones and one huge, hulking prawn. A plate of brilliant, jade green Chinese broccoli provides a nice contrast to the heavier dishes -- the stalks are crunchy and light, and served with a dark, intensely bitter dipping sauce. If you see one, be sure to grab a plate of eggplant stuffed with shrimp -- the eggplant is surreally melting, and bathed in a gravy so rich and satisfying you may feel you never need to eat again.
But as suggested above, save room for the pastries. Small, cylindrical pork pastries come topped with a thin, sweet glaze and white sesame, the lard-based dough so intensely decadent that foie gras seems bland by comparison. The crust surrounding the traditional custard tarts dissolves into a fine, savory powder, while the steamed thousand-layer cake combines layers of spongy, feather-light dough with an egg-yolk custard imbued with the natural sweetness of coconut. Gooey, quivering dumplings may seem at first bite to contain finely ground graphite, but don't worry -- it's a subtly sweet purée of black sesame seeds. To finish, try the mango custard topped with condensed milk, which proved so clean and refreshing that, if I hadn't already requested the check (just over $55 fed both of us and kept me eating leftovers until the following evening), I probably would have kept on ordering.
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