You’ve got to admire anyone crazy enough to open a restaurant. It’s akin to spending 16 hours a day on a high wire, and the rate of failure is extremely high. But when the hard work pays off, the lives of an entire multigenerational nuclear family might change forever.
Such seems the case with Ha Long Bay, which has been family-owned and operated at the same St. Pete location since 2008. The name derives from the UNESCO World Heritage Site that translates “descending dragon bay.” The large dining room, which also offers segregated areas for private parties, depicts that breathtaking landscape in art and pictures.
Ha Long Bay proudly touts a kitchen with six specialty chefs on staff: two dim sum, two Vietnamese, and two traditional Chinese. This means when you order dim sum and your guest orders a traditional Chinese or Vietnamese dish, the specialty chefs prepare the selections individually. The menu is an excellent guide, with lots of colorful photos and Chinese logogram characters. And the puffed shrimp chips are a nice beginning as you wade through the myriad options figuring out what to order. So many choices…
Our dim sum lunch selections are delightful. A dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp brims with flavor and features a pleated “shark fin” noodle top that gives it its name. Two different rice-noodle-wrapped steamed dumplings perfectly balance shrimp-cilantro and tofu-chive respectively. The turnip cake’s brown seared exterior hides a surprisingly tender, creamy pudding-esque center that seems a culinary root vegetable miracle. And the custard bun, with its sweet yolk-colored filling, is like a cupcake inversion dreamed up by Hostess. Add a pile of savory Chinese broccoli to assure Mom that you’ve eaten your veggies, and you’ve had a happy meal indeed. Score one for dim sum!
An evening dinner visit focuses on sampling the Sino-Viet dishes. I’m a sucker for little game birds, so my pulse quickens when I see the appetizer menu features quail sautéed in butter with lettuce and carrots. My tablemates are less enthusiastic, never having experienced the sweet tenderness that this particular poultry offers. Unfortunately, my effort to introduce them to a wonderful gastronomic treat falls flat. The quail arrives in what can only be described in KFC parlance as “extra crispy.” Sadly, despite a beautiful dark brown, crisp exterior, the meat is stringy and dry, dry, dry!
The egg drop soup that we opt for is good old-fashioned Asian comfort food. Its bright yellow color is as cheery as the broth is savory and satisfying. It’s a nice way to begin.
We hope that the scallion pancake shows the same flavorful appeal. Unfortunately it’s just bland, without the bite that the scallions should provide. Our young server recommends the bottle of ubiquitous hoisin sauce sitting against the back wall of our booth. This strikes me as the Asian version of a Western diner who insists on using Heinz ketchup indiscriminately. These are both fine condiments with practical gastronomic applications, but they should not be expected to carry a dish across any culinary finish line.
There’s a wide selection of sake, beer and wine along with specialty beverages indigenous to Vietnam, China and Thailand. I recommend the mango boba to a dining companion; it’s tasty, although much to our surprise, prepackaged. Perhaps things will pick up with the entrees — if we can ever place our orders. The downside of a family business is on clear display with Ha Long Bay’s service. I can’t be sure, but it appears that the waitstaff for our weeknight meal is comprised of reluctant teenagers. On the positive side, they seem to be taking turns checking on our table in between homework assignments. Suffice it to say, we feel like an afterthought, even though there’s not a crowd.
I have fond memories of a Dungeness crab dish in San Francisco’s Chinatown, so I’m eager for our table to be wowed. Despite the fact that the menu lists this at “market price” (in this case $37), we decide to splurge on “cua xào hành gung.” We see the crab exit the salt-water aquarium, but what arrives at the table coated with a thick gelatinous glaze lacks the brightness that a ginger-scallion sauce portends. It’s just difficult to eat and without enough flavor to seem worth the effort.
We decide to try something less exotic: Long Bay’s version of lemon chicken. Like the quail, this poultry is also very crisp. Luckily, the larger bird yields a juicier result with ample amounts of sweet tart lemon sauce to provide a nice contrast. But the sauce lacks the zing to thrill your taste buds.
Finally, the house-fried rice includes shrimp, pork, and chicken, but only a few veggies. It has good flavor, but this is not what you’d expect to be the highlight of the evening. I feel like I’m missing something, since a canny Vietnamese friend gave this place a thumbs-up. From my experience, the cookie fortune reads: “Dim sum is your path to happiness.”