On my previous visit to Hong Kong, I ate the best dim sum I have ever eaten. That was at the Michelin-starred Lei Garden in the IFC mall. On this occasion my friends in Hong Kong—well, one of them was out of town that weekend—insisted I go instead to an older-school place, and we hit on Maxim’s Palace in City Hall in the Central area. Maxim’s Palace is one of the few remaining cavernous banquet halls in Hong Kong, still serving dim sum on carts. Over the last decade or so, I’ve become un-enamoured of dim sum on carts—all the best places in the San Gabriel Valley switched to a la carte ordering over that period, following the lead of the better Hong Kong places. But my friend insisted and since I was curious to see what cart dim sum at a high-end place in Hong Kong would be like I did not resist.
Cart dim sum, by the way, is not some hoary, traditional way of serving dim sum. Though it remains identified with the dim sum experience in the US outside of areas with a major Chinese food scene, my understanding is that this mode of serving dim sum only arose in Hong Kong in the late ’60s or ’70s. The move away from it in recent years, therefore, may actually be a return to tradition. At any rate, a la carte dim sum is always superior from a food quality perspective to cart dim sum because you get each order fresh from the kitchen as it’s prepared and not after potentially having sat in a cart, over-cooking, as it goes around the dining room a few times before it gets to you. And this issue hobbled the Maxim’s experience a bit as well.
Don’t get me wrong: it was still better, on the whole, than any dim sum I’ve had in the US—better than Sea Harbour, Elite and Lunasia in the SGV. But unlike Lei Garden it was not head and shoulders above the best meals I’ve had at those places. This is both a tribute to the quality of the SGV’s best but is also a marker of the pitfalls of the cart system. The things that were freshly arrived from the kitchen were excellent, but some things had clearly sat too long. Such, for example, were the har gow, which had been delicately pleated but stuck to the steamer and fell apart when picked up, the shiu mai, which had wilted slightly, and the duck webs/feet which had got just a bit too flabby. But I’m being rather picky here: if a place half as good existed within reach of us in Minnesota I’d eat there every week.
But unless you’re in a large group, or unless you get there right when they open at 9, you’re going to have to wait a long time for this dim sum. On the weekend anyway—I’m sure it’s less insane on weekdays. We were there on a Sunday, however,. We got there just before 11.15 and were greeted by a crowd of Kumbh Mela proportions. I was directed to a machine to one side which, once you enter the number of people in your party, spits out a ticket with a number coded by group size. At 11.13 I got A303 but as they were then seating A140 or so, and as the restaurant is indeed cavernous, we did not panic. And at 11.40 they were up to A173 and so it seemed like we’d not have to wait too long. Alas, it wasn’t till 1.15 that we were actually seated! People take their time, and despite the large groups milling outside, the staff don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to bring people their bills or clear tables. But eventually our number was called and we were given a slip of paper with our table number on it. We found our table, sat down and got down to bidness.
To see what we ate and what it was like, and also to get a sense of the scrum inside and outside the restaurant, please launch the slideshow below. And scroll down to see how much all of it cost and what the rest of the experience was like.
The room, as I noted, is massive, and it stayed full throughout. The tables are nicely spaced, however, so you don’t feel cramped. The aesthetic is over-the-top, stopping just short of tacky. There’s lots of yellow light; I set the white balance on my dslr but ended up taking a lot of pictures on the run on my phone as well—this explains the varied lighting in my pictures. The service once you sit down is a bit patchy. Things you don’t ask for right as you sit down take a while to show up, if you can flag someone down. This goes for the bill as well. Again, things may be far more relaxed on weekdays—but when eating with locals, weekdays are not possible. The woman at the check-in counter advised coming in as close to 9 on weekends as possible. She said that while tables open up after 2 pm, the kitchen shuts at 3 and not everything is going to be available the closer it gets to 3.
And speaking of the bill, despite the old-school setup and the lack of Michelin star, this was no cheaper than our meal at Lei Garden in 2016. All of this came to HKD 639 with service charge added on, or $81 US. And while the food was good, it was nowhere near the level of Lei Garden. That said, with a couple of hours of waiting pain you can eat at Maxim’s on short notice; at Lei Garden we had to book a couple of months out. But if you’re not a local your plans will have been set a while before and booking ahead should not be a difficulty. I should add that it is theoretically possible to book a table at Maxim’s ahead of time as well using the local reservations app GULU; but in practice it seems only very few tables are released to it: we tried to see how well it would do for a few days later and it said it had nothing available.
Well, this was not my only dim sum meal on this trip. I also hit up an outpost of the acclaimed Tim Ho Wan on my way to the airport some days later. That will be my last Hong Kong report, however. Coming next from that city will be another noodle soup and wontons report.