Let’s think of the city’s dim sum ecosystem as if it were the five strata of O.G. General Motors. Extra-fancy Yank Sing would be Cadillac, while less-sexy but ever-reliable Koi Palace is Buick. Any number of no-frills places could be Chevrolet, and flashier Koi Palace spinoff Dragon Beaux might make a good Pontiac. That leaves Oldsmobile, a marque the car manufacturer retired 15 years ago but which once stood for experimentation and novelty. We have it again in Palette Tea House, a Ghirardelli Square project from the Koi Palace/Dragon Beaux people that also serves upscale seafood and craft cocktails.
Big, stylish, and full of screens and other visual room dividers, it’s a smarter use of its palatial space than the thoroughly forgotten Waxman’s — which was likely conceived to give celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman some pre-retirement income but from which he walked away owing some $70,000 in rent and janitorial services. That restaurant was simply too big to be a showcase for one chef’s talents yet — at the risk of being monstrously condescending — maybe too geared toward San Francisco residents to attract many families visiting from out of town. (Only recently, Waxman shuttered his Manhattan flagship, Barbuto, although it may reopen elsewhere.)
Polished further, it’s now home to Instagrammable $12 XLB samplers that you don’t have to wait three hours for. Elegantly fashioned, with beautifully symmetrical pinches at the crown of the dumpling, they’re enticing even if the main difference may be the color of the wrapper. (Not much turmeric in that turmeric xiao long bao.) Jigglier squid ink chiu chow dumplings, which look as much like sea cucumbers any dumplings can, are a better route, their rice flour barely able to hold the contents in. A few items are flavorless, like a rice crepe with dried shrimp, scallion, and cilantro while lotus wrap abalone sticky rice was lots of fun to tease apart. And the gooey, overloaded black-and-tan sauces you mix into the dan dan noodles — here cashew instead of peanut butter — wer almost too much, in a good way.
You can really splurge, too. While Palette’s relationship with offal is tentative at best — organ meats are almost nonexistent, and even the storied chicken feet are “chicken claw” with kabocha squash — the crux of the menu lies in market-price seafood dishes, chiefly Dungeness crab and Maine lobster.
Where Palette excels is in its sweets. A salted egg lava bao was neither doughy nor sugary, just hot and satisfying, while the texture of a blueberry sesame ball is gummy enough to be addicting once your eyes are opened at last to the universe of possibilities beyond red-bean paste.
Like Waxman’s, Palette still has some visible trouble absorbing its own mammoth footprint, including an enclosed patio area that doesn’t appear to be open very much even during tourist season, plus a separate to-go section that also feels lifeless. We can only speculate how many tens of thousands of dollars the ownership Venmo’s to Jamestown Properties on the first of every month, but it’s a lot, and that has likely caused management to approach things in a rather dollar sign-driven way.
As with many dim sum palaces, much is undertaken in the name of efficiency, but that imperative feels like its own worst enemy during the weekend rush. Palette Tea House is too narrow and has too little enclosed kitchen space for steaming carts to hog the right-of-way, but instead of dedicated servers, the full team sweeps the room. This is fine until something goes awry, and then you don’t know who to turn to. (Maybe I’m overly punctilious about it, but I don’t like asking for stuff from servers who aren’t “mine.”) If a dish gets lost on its trip from the kitchen, no one may know what happened to it — but someone else may assume it had been served, consumed, and cleared, so they whisk away your card. A forgivable omission now feels like a clerical error, and setting it right like a bureaucratic hurdle.
It gets T.G.I. Friday’s-ier, which admittedly renders my Oldsmobile metaphor somewhat moot. Palette’s plates are in fact in the shape of artist palettes, with little wells for its five sauces — cilantro, soy, horseradish-mustard, chili, and firecracker — which already arrive in perfectly fine caddies complete with spoons. Although there are no other signifiers of visual hand-holding, you suspect that’s meant to delight people having their first dim sum experience. And when a server dropped off the check and earnestly pleaded with us to leave a Yelp review, I admit I was caught off-guard. That’s a new one to me, and he sounded coached besides. But here ya go.
Palette Tea House 900 North Point St., Suite B201,