BY BRADLEY HAWKS
East Ocean Palace in Forest Hills offers fantastically authentic Cantonese dim sum on the weekends, when Flushing and Chinatown seem too far away. An interactive (if not sometimes athletic) dining experience from the moment you step foot in the entryway, stacked aquariums in the waiting area create a compartmentalized mosaic of oceanic life, allowing guests to window-shop the fresh seafood before even taking a seat or perusing a menu.
Like a frenzied bumper car buffet, a nimble team of cart attendants wheel through the dining room as if selling on commission, proudly displaying what appears like hundreds of dishes, from steamed dumpling baskets with every filling imaginable, to classic small plates like chicken feet and tripe, and gorgeous desserts like water chestnut New Year’s cake and chewy sesame balls stuffed with warm almond paste. Whole live prawns are scooped from their tanks to order and flash-fried, served in a generous heap. Plates range from $2-$5 and feed three to four people each, allowing a party of four to six to fill up for around $20 per person (or less). Orders are tracked on a tally sheet kept at the table, and totaled upon completion of the meal.
Language can be a bit of a barrier, but servers harbor a very sincere desire to satisfy guests. It might even be advantageous to arrive with a small idea of possibilities to consider requesting by name. Ha Gow are sweet shrimp in a crystal dumpling wrapper that arrive in steamed baskets, as do many of the other dishes. Be sure to ask for the lo mai gai (“low my guy”), which at initial glance appears to be a small brick wrapped in a lotus leaf. Peeling back the wrapping, however, reveals fragrant steamed sticky rice filled with mushroom, chicken, pork, and shrimp.
The entire experience is nothing shy of a culinary Christmas, which is part of the fun. Shiny, curious, steaming dishes attract the eye like shimmering presents under the tree. You can shake, smell, and conjecture away, but until you actually dig in there is no way of predicting what gift of flavor lies within—though practically everything that passes by proves rewarding. That heart-shaped white gelatin tastes like mangos and cream. That dish that looks like an éclair wrapped in pasta actually tastes like a pastry puff lasagna, only in a rich and savory brown gravy studded with sesame seeds.
Large plates may also be ordered from the menu, which is full of photographs that assist in ordering. Consider these few critical tips to know before arriving, and the rest will come naturally as your experience unfolds: Grab a post-it from the hostess upon entering, as seating is called by handwritten numbers, with wait times rarely exceeding twenty minutes. Specify a tea order the moment a server appears, or receive the basic chrysanthemum tea traditionally served at the kids’ table. If the entire staff appears curiously apathetic to your gratitude and unable to say “you’re welcome”, be aware that “thank you” is gestured (rather than spoken) by gently tapping a single finger on the table, two fingers if married—a motion that mimics bowing, without disrupting the meal to actually do so.
East Ocean Palace
113-09 Queens Boulevard, Forest Hills
Hours: Sat & Sun 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Mon – Fri 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Menu with photos and translations available here.