Different cultures seem to idealize different qualities in the restaurant experience. The most memorable Japanese restaurants I’ve known have been small and cozy — little nooks where the chef makes one kind of dish extremely well. French dining for me hits its stride in bistros that evince the special bustle and energy of their neighborhoods.
But my favorite Chinese restaurants have always been palatial spaces, filled with a sea of tables and boasting the talents of a chef who can stage a true feast. When Chinese restaurants feel like a celebration, they stay long in your mind.
Such has been my experience at Golden House — a new Duluth spot from one of the metro area’s best-loved Cantonese chefs. Danny Ting, a native of Hong Kong, earned the love of Atlanta’s Chinese food fanatics during his successive stints at two modest Buford Highway spots, Wan Lai and Bo Bo Garden. Fans helped Ting compile an ever-increasing list of signature dishes, from his three-dumpling soup to his savory hot pots bubbling with spare ribs and taro.
But here Ting has the space and the setting to spread his wings and serve the dishes that make grand Chinese dining an event. The pillar-framed entrance and foyer set with a massive tropical fish tank raise your expectations. When you enter the dining room with its glittery chandelier, parquet dance floor and small army of black-and-white-clad waiters, you’re ready to live large.
Ting follows through with a thick, multipage menu in a handsome padded jacket that offers a seeming hundred dishes — everything from Peking duck to an ocean’s worth of live fish, lobster, crab and shrimp. On Sundays, dim sum carts roll through the space, and the room fills to capacity. After three visits, I’ve barely sampled the low-hanging fruit on this vast menu, though I hope to remedy that soon enough. With its warm, professional service and reasonable prices factored into the equation, Golden House strikes me as a real destination.
You should assemble a group of six or eight for your first venture; not only can you try more dishes, but you also get dibs on a Lazy Susan table. Everyone knows that rotation makes all food somehow more delicious.
Don’t miss the whole Peking duck ($28.95), glossy and burnished, that a waiter wheels to the table on a cart for oohs and aahs. He carves the meat and skin — masterfully, I would add — onto a platter, and serves it with julienned cucumbers and leeks, hoisin sauce and warm, fluffy steamed buns to split and stuff. (Buns, rather than the pancakes served in Beijing, are preferred in southern China.) The skin, while not as shattery crisp as some, sings with flavor.
For a surcharge of $10, you can get two more courses from that duck, which I highly recommend. The carcass returns to the kitchen, where the legs and final shreds of meat find their way into a peppy stir-fry with bean sprouts and chives. The ribs and back enrich a steaming tureen of soup, along with tofu and bok choy. This soup has a mild flavor that edges on boring if you don’t pay attention. Sip slowly and notice how the perfectly unseasoned soup base (chicken stock, we guessed) turns ever so slightly duck-ified; you can taste glimmers of fat and star anise, and you don’t want this elixir any different.
You’ll also want to put dibs on one of the sea creatures swimming in the tanks in the back of the restaurant. But how to choose? Twice I went to Golden House with designs on the striped bass or grouper, and twice was deterred. I couldn’t very well pass up a $17.95 two-lobster special, not when it resulted in this appetizing heap of salt-and-pepper-fried chunks, each juicy morsel an easy wiggle away from its shell. Unlike some versions that can get very seasoned and greasy, this one had just enough spice to tingle the lips and a bone-dry coating. Once we dispatched with the meat and even some of the shell (as crisp as potato chips), we picked at the bed of shredded lettuce, fried shallots and hot pepper rings.
Another time I espied live shrimp ($17.95) on the specials board by the entrance and couldn’t resist. This generous serving of peel-and-eat shrimp are so firm, poppy and full of sea flavor they seem like a different species. Peel, run through the soy-vinegar dip and make a num-num sound. Repeat.
Cantonese chefs have a reputation for liking rather a lot of mild sauce, and Ting seems to be no exception. Two kinds of mushrooms ($9.95) — meaty, chewy king oysters and shiitakes — come tossed with Chinese broccoli spears in ample brown gloss. A beef and vermicelli hot pot ($10.95) brings a whole lot of gooey beef slivers and bean thread in a sticky wash of sauce etched with the distinctive mineral smoke of its clay cooking vessel, the flavor I so enjoy in hot pots. If these descriptions either turn you off or intrigue you, then you know what side of the goo divide your palate falls on.
But there is also something ineffable about the cooking here that I find incredibly appealing. Nothing tastes too salty or too oily; I can eat heartily and walk away from the table with a feeling of nourishment rather than bloat.
Even dim sum seems less gut-busty than some of the others around town that have left me in a food coma. I trust this kitchen not to spring hidden reserves of cooking grease on you.
Still, I have to say I’m less enamored of this meal than all those people clamoring for tables on Sunday morning. I’ve found it rather par for the course of decent Atlanta dim sum, which is to say uneven. On the plus side, the tea service is stellar, with the choice of jasmine, chrysanthemum, oolong and pu-erh (dark fermented) teas.
Yet the stream of dumplings, cakes, rolls, balls, feet, tarts, stews and assorted whatnots ($2.49 for most, $3.49 for larger plates) have such a hit-and-miss presence. The same bland shrimp filling finds a dozen or more uses, from capping strips of green pepper, to filling spring rolls and fuzzy fried crunch balls, to stuffing sadly sticky and doughy har gau, those translucent dumplings that should be a calling card.
I do like the siu mai (round pork dumplings) for their springy freshness, and the sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste are the best I’ve ever had. Well-seasoned congee (rice soup) with pork and thousand year egg hits the spot on a blustery morning. Pillowy fresh tofu, warm from the pot with ginger syrup, must be the pabulum lactose-intolerant babies dream of in their treetops.
But then sticky rice bundles unfurl to reveal a slick, gooey filling without any caramel-tinged edges or treasure-trove fillings (plugs of lap cheong sausage, whole dried shrimp) to unearth. Turnip cakes fall into mush and have no crispness on the surface. Rice noodle rolls filled with bouncy little shrimp gum up and stick to your mouth like peanut butter, with none of the slippery resilience I want from this preparation. Frizzy taro cakes also seem soft and bland, without the mild coconut sweetness you might expect from this tuber.
I would also like to see more kinds of dumplings, such as shrimp with chive and fish.
But — huzzah — the restaurant serves its full menu all day. So what if the $2.49 dumplings are stickier than you like? Take a bite and move on. There’s a lobster with your name on it.GOLDEN HOUSE 1600 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth; 770-921-2228 Food: ambitious Cantonese cooking Service: extremely courteous and professional Best dishes: Peking duck, salt-and-pepper lobster Vegetarian selections: Some; not strict vegetarians will do quite well, however. Credit cards: all major Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturdays-Sundays Children: not a problem at all Parking: self-parking in large lot Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: full Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: no Takeout: yes