An old-style Cantonese has perfected its crowd-pleasers, Jean Teng discovers.
White-tableclothed Cantonese restaurants won’t be having a renaissance any time soon in Auckland. In fact, the numbers are already dwindling. We have some stalwarts — Grand Park, Grand Harbour, China Hong Kong in Birkenhead, Canton Café — but Auckland’s attention has largely shifted to an increasingly diverse offering of Chinese food from mainland China, reflecting the regions our new migrants are moving from. But, after more than 35 years, Auckland continues to have Empress Garden.
I am transported back in time. The red lanterns, intricate screens and cushy red chairs remind me of the faded kitsch grandness of some 1980s fantasy Chinatown. I can’t decide if I’m charmed. For some, this place is drenched in nostalgia. For me, it’s my first time. There’s no place quite like it in Auckland: a quaint converted Herne Bay villa, the dining rooms oddly bisected by a hallway, both sides nearly identical in every way possible.
The original owners are gone and the mostly young staff chat with us and each other in Mandarin, but… “Our chef, he’s still Cantonese,” I’m reassured. Service is generally doting, impressively so when considering the weird divided rooms. The practical, unspoken topping-up of tea helps; just a tipped-over lid to indicate when we need it.
I’d been told people come here for the Peking duck, and I soon find out why. We’d called ahead to reserve all three courses, and so when we arrive at our table, a bowl of sauce already sat in its centre. I can’t help but have a taste: the usual hoisin, sesame oil, sugar. It’s a sauce strong with sense memory; one lick has me rapidly recalling every other time I’ve tasted it.
Peking duck originated in Beijing in the imperial period, but here it’s almost exclusively a Cantonese restaurant’s game. It’s a very hard dish to make and, when done right, is incredibly good. And at Empress Garden, it is incredibly good.
The first course is thin, floury pancakes that you wrap around duck skin (some tender flesh attached) and slivers of spring onion and cucumber. I start out filling a pancake of just duck skin, no flesh, to test that crunch. Success! It’s one of the best I’ve had — thin, crisp and blistery skin. Here, you choose between six options for the second course. Most places only have lettuce, which you use as cups for the duck, minced and fried with preserved veggies. I go for sesame pockets, which are hollow little bready receptacles. I missed the fresh crunchiness of lettuce, that lightness against the salty duck. The duck stir-fry itself is mellower than at many restaurants, more amenable for being spooned directly into the mouth. The third course uses duck frame, with promises of flesh to be ripped off with your teeth. The flavour that gets sucked out from the ginger and spring-onion version is gingery as hell and wholly satisfying.
Most of the other dishes we eat are distressingly average, a usual side-effect from a menu so long it has its own narrative. I’d eaten a similar dish of salted fish and pork mince with eggplant, usually served in a clay-pot, many times before, and this version is just… fine. It is served in a metal pot instead, which shortens the expected long-lasting heat. But that moreish, addictive salted fish flavour spreads nicely through the pliant, mushy eggplant.
I usually order a whole steamed blue cod the first time I’m at a Cantonese restaurant — the freshness, the sauce, and the suppleness of the flesh are all telling. The fish here is fresh, the smooth white flesh gliding right off, but the sauce too sweet. Two out of three isn’t bad. I sneakily scoop out the tender cheeks before anyone else can get to them.
They like their meat sizzling here, and we oblige. Sizzling beef, sizzling chicken, sizzling lamb — all iterations tend to have a tasty but bottled sameness. A part of me balks at ordering sweet and sour pork, but a side-eye to the table next to me kind of makes me wish I had. It’s obvious they’ve perfected their crowd-pleasers, especially the excellent Peking duck… So why keep all those other duds on the menu?
One more thing: Empress Garden is BYO. So do that, and do the Peking duck.
Empress Garden Restaurant
227 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay
Hours: 7 days, 12-2.30pm, 5-10pm
Dinner bill: Starters $8-$12; mains $24.50-$68.50; Peking duck (three courses) $95; desserts $8.
This piece originally appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Skin in the Game".