Oysters and Shredded Pickled Cabbage Soup, Crispy Duck Deep-Fried with Chinese Spices with Homemade Buns and Hoisin Sauce, Kung Pao Calamari
Occupation: Chi Gung and Tai Chi Instructor
Favorite Restaurant: Da Lian
Reviewed Da Lian: Friday, June 1, 2007
I first went to Da Lian soon after they opened in December 2006, because I actually lived in DaLian in China's northeast for a year (1985-6). DaLian is China's northernmost ice-free harbor and it's on the Yellow Sea (BoHai), so seafood is a major influence on the cuisine. In the fall in Northern China, people were pickling or drying vegetables in preparation for the winter. I went back to Da Lian in September 2006 and one of the features in restaurants is serving an enormous bowl of soup whether you are one, two, or many people. I've eaten at Da Lian in Berkeley about six times in the past year and a half. In the past I've leaned toward their lamb and pickled cabbage soup and their chive and shrimp boiled dumplings. This time I decided to order something I hadn't had before, which was the oyster, pickled cabbage, and tofu clay pot (soup). It was fabulous. The broth looks, for all the world, like dishwater but actually has exceptional flavor from the pickled cabbage -- just the right amount of sourness, which somehow brings out the flavor of the oysters. I don't know how they do it, but it works. And the shredded pickled cabbage was perfect in texture and flavor.
The mu shu scallops is a very delicate dish and their wrappers are just right -- not the usual stretchy ones I've gotten in other restaurants, but actually more like a crepe. I went with two friends, one of whom cannot eat wheat, so I brought some rice paper rounds and organic wheat-free hoisin sauce (carried by most health food stores), so that we could all share the mu shu scallops. The wait staff was very accommodating in bringing a bowl for water to soak the rice paper, once she understood what we were doing.
The asparagus were very fresh, crisp, and tender. These three dishes were more than enough for the three of us -- the portions are generous and the soup would have fed a much larger group, although we managed to finish it all.
The owners went through a long renovation process and now have their own distinctive, modern, understated decor. On all my visits the restaurant has had a quiet ambience, so that I've always been able to have comfortable conversations. The staff is very attentive, checking in to replenish water and tea and see if we needed anything.
I've gone to Da Lian with different friends and, generally, when we get together, and are discussing where to eat, they want to go back there. So that's a good sign, too. As far as parking is concerned, I generally find parking within a block of the restaurant and sometimes right in front.
Occupation: Consumer Services Manager and Sausage Maker
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Buca di Beppo
Reviewed Da Lian: Saturday June 2, 2007
First of all, I have to admit I eat Chinese food at least four times a week. I eat all kinds, like dim sum, Cantonese, Chinoise, Szechwan and Mandarin. So, when I saw Da Lian listed as the best Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, I thought, "Yeah, right!" But right now I have to admit I have been humbled. From my first sip of Sizzling Rice Soup I was hooked and speechless (well, almost). Each dish was a source of amazement. I ordered the eggplant just to impress my friends, but it turned out to be a melt-in-your-mouth delight, with a subtle hint of sweetness, garlic, and star anise. Crispy duck was exactly as described: deep-fried with Chinese spices. At other restaurants, you get mostly skin with a little meat, but Da Lian served half the bird. This dish was served with homemade buns and a nice thick hoisin sauce. By the time we tasted the Chicken Chow Fun, I was ready to hug the cook. I kept asking my friends if they thought our server had brought her mother from home to cook in the kitchen. I mean, there had to be somebody's grandmother cooking in there. I was almost hysterical with this thought. I never had homemade Chinese food before, but it must taste like this: simple seasonings, no MSG, and I swear I tasted love.
Parking was a bear, we circled so many times I thought we would miss our reservation. The next time I go I will give myself extra time just to find parking. My guests were visiting from Vermont for the weekend. They are coming back in several weeks. At first, I thought they were coming to spend more time with me, but they mentioned Da Lian so many times to so many people during the weekend, I'm getting a little jealous. I promised we would go again when they return. However, I know I will sneak out and go again without them before they come back. Make the time to visit this quaint, ordinary looking restaurant -- it is simply incredible.
Occupation: Airplane Mechanic and Horse Enthusiast
Favorite Restaurant: The Mountain House Restaurant
Reviewed Da Lian: Saturday, May 19, 2007
My overall experience at Da Lian was average. We went at around 7:00pm on Saturday and found the restaurant with very few patrons, actually almost empty. We were very promptly seated. Service was very good, however there was a bit of a communication issue with the waitstaff as I believe their English was limited. Each time we asked about a dish it was answered with a friendly smile, a nod, and a, "Yes, it is very good." Not much help there. I looked up some reviews on the Internet before we went, and figured the Northern Chinese entrees were their specialty and were suppose to be excellent, so that was the way I intended to order. The menu had a lot of choices, with a few more items I would have liked to try.
We started out with the stereotypical vegetarian spring rolls, which were okay, but nothing to write home about. I ordered my main course from the Chef Specials Menu: Deluxe Seafood in a Clay Pot. I was very impressed when this arrived, as the clay pot was just heaping with seafood. Mussels, calamari, prawns, and scallops in a black bean sauce. The seafood was cooked to perfection although the sauce was very bland and tasteless. I was not, overall, impressed with this dish.
My wife ordered the kung pao calamari, and, to quote her, "The best kung pao I've had in years." I also enjoyed the kung pao, it was spiced very nicely and had a wonderful flavor. A much better dish than what I had ordered for myself. Portions were large and a good value.
The tea was very good, though not very hot. The wine list was very limited, however what was on the list was very palatable. The list of beers was very generic, other than one Chinese beer.
As for the restaurant itself, the atmosphere seemed kind of sterile to me. The walls are tan and dark brown, and the wall art is all aligned perfectly like soldiers in formation. However, the tile flooring is gorgeous. I guess I look for more gold and reds in a Chinese restaurant. Tables were spaced nicely, so it did not seem cramped inside. The restrooms were very clean, and this has always been one of my pet peeves. I expect a restaurant to have an immaculate restroom, and this one did. The light rock music playing softly in the back ground was also a very nice touch.
Parking is only street parking, and we had to park about a block and a half away, and the commute from the Peninsula was terrible. It took over an hour to get there, and with the Bay Bridge toll plaza, it took us almost two hours to get home. We left Berkeley at 9:30pm and arrived home at 11:30pm.
The burning question is always: would you go back and try it again? I found Da Lian to be an average Chinese restaurant and would not go out of my way to make the 80 mile round trip and deal with bridge tolls and traffic just to go there. However, there were some other interesting sounding items on the menu I would try, so if I found myself in Berkeley again and wanted Chinese food, I would give them another chance.