First Taste: Palette Tea House, a dim sum spot for the Instagram age

Bring the family and go whole hog at Palette Tea House, where you'll find all the dim sum usuals but with an artful twist. (Sarah Chorey)

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By Sarah Chorey 
Dim sum and Instagram share some things in common. The obvious, of course, is the photogenic nature of the bite-size Chinese morsels which were, like Instagram, invented for the purpose of sharing.

But each is also quite deceptive: seemingly simple things—they're just dumplings after all, and just small square pictures in the blogosphere—that are actually pretty complex. Both can quickly tip from fresh and delightful to sticky and overwrought; in other words, dim sum and Instagram are tricky things to master. The new Palette Tea House, opened in Ghirardelli Square this spring, gets props out the gate for rising to the challenge of offering modern, artful dim sum created for the Instagram age.

Geometric lanterns and lotus patterns in the laser-cut dividing walls put a modern twist on classic Chinese themes at Palette Tea House.
Geometric lanterns and lotus patterns in the laser-cut dividing walls put a modern twist on classic Chinese themes at Palette Tea House. (Sarah Chorey )

From owner Willy Ng and general manager Dennis Leung, both of the OG dim sum spot Koi Palace, opened in 1996, and the newer Dragon BeauxPalette Tea House takes over the ambitious space formerly home to the short-lived Waxman's, a 6,500-square-foot behemoth of a dining hall with high ceilings that all but ensures an energetic, noisy vibe—and that suits the family-style format of dining here just fine.

Designed by Sunny Tam of Campbell, CA–based Studio 02 and C&E Designs' Chris Ho, the whopping 450-seat restaurant has had the good fortune of a modern makeover that echoes Chinese themes—gently, not too heavy-handed—with red and yellow geometric lantern lighting; metal dividing walls laser cut in patterns evoking lotus flowers; and a wooden communal table with a watery zen garden contained as its centerpiece. In other words, the stage is set for big groups ready to dig into towers of bamboo baskets all overflowing with wontons and the like.

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Chef Stephen Nguyen (Roy's, Bong Sy, Campton Place) has stepped up to the task of crafting classic dim sum dishes in thoroughly modern fashion, and he's turning out small plate after small plate of plump and pretty delicacies just begging for their photo op. Masterful cooking techniques and innovative and seasonal ingredients yield elevated bites including lobster and quail egg siu mai; prickly durian bao; black truffle wagyu rice crepes; and abalone sticky rice. If you're looking for Koi Palace's oft-Instagrammed, multihued xiao long bao, you will find those here, too, but when it comes to photographable fare, Palette has a supermodel all its own: the deep-fried charcoal taro puffs, molded into somewhat wicked little black swans, are ever-ready for their closeup.

The final touch here is a nod to the restaurant's name: the custom, artist-inspired palette plates designed for holding the various colorful sauces. Dip in.

Dim sum should always start with dumplings. The lobster ha gow are busting at the wanton-wrapper seams with plump crustacean meat.

Really love your lobster? Add an order of the steamed silken egg topped with the stuff for a dish that's luxurious in flavor while light in texture.

The mighty, steamed Kurobuta truffle XLB is twice the size of any regular dumpling and made with premium pork with a hint of truffle.

You have to order the black swan puffs just to get a snap for your feed, but this delightful take on the classic deep fried taro puff, updated with charcoal, is a flight of fancy for your tastebuds, too.

Palette has an entire section of its menu devoted to grilled and skewered items, like tiger prawns (pictured), smoked pork belly, and wagyu steak.

When was the last time you saw Iberico pork at your local dim sum palace? This cha siu of tender pork chunks is glazed with a slightly sweet barbecue sauce for a beyond-rich flavor. Try and suss out the nutty flavors that come from from the acorn-based diet of these specific Spanish pigs.

Rice crepes are available with your choice of several fillings including prawns, soft shell crab, and raw wagyu with finely chopped black truffle mushrooms (pictured).

It's always a smart move to get a noodle dish. The dan dan noodles are coated in a creamy cashew sauce and topped with julienned peppers, carrots, and green onions. That bit of heat comes from chili oil and Sichuan pepper.

The Chinese believe in yin and yang. Achieve balance with at least one order of vegetables, like Palette's Sichuan string beans with finely chopped mushrooms.

Reserve the restaurant's new private room, semi-enclosed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall of wine, for more intimate family parties.

Palette's cocktail program was designed by Carlos Yturria (The Treasury, Whitecap), and the outdoor bar is a great spot for an afternoon drink. Stop by for happy hour bites from 3pm to 5pm daily.

// Palette Tea House, 900 North Point St. suite B201 (Ghirardelli Square), paletteteahouse.com

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This article originally appeared on 7x7 Bay Area.

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