King of the Strip
Lobster King seafood restaurant opened its doors on Cleveland Street in Midtown in March, serving up Cantonese cuisine with a focus on fresh seafood. When they say the seafood is fresh, they mean some of the fish, Dungeness crabs, and of course lobsters, which are swimming in tubs until you place your order. Lobster King is an offshoot of Viet Hoa, a large international food market just two doors down: Restaurant proprietor Tommy Fan is a member of the family who operates the market. He also refers to the cooking as Hong Kong cuisine.
The restaurant, although it's located in a no-frills strip center in a rather dicey part of town, is pleasant enough once you get inside. It's clean and simple, presenting a less cluttered version of the usual Chinese restaurant décor. While the atmosphere is fine during daylight hours, at dinner the overly bright lights made the place seem tense and wide awake, not very relaxed or intimate.
The food is definitely the strong suit here, and one of the best things about Lobster King is its dim sum. While the words actually mean "heart's delight" in Cantonese, dim sum consists of little plates of dumplings, steamed buns, and other preparations. On weekends (10 a.m.-3 p.m.), it's served traditionally from carts that criss-cross the restaurant (you just point to what you want), but during the week, some 40 lunch choices are available (usually made to order from a separate menu but sometimes served from carts).
When we went for lunch, the dim sum sounded so intriguing that we barely opened the conventional lunch menu, which offers an entrée with rice and soup for $4.95. The entrées range from predictable (General Tso's chicken, moo goo gai pan) to exotic (sour vegetables with intestines). A third lunch menu is available for diners who, according to the staff, are accustomed to this style of cooking. A dinner version of that menu includes sizzling eel in casserole and pork belly with preserved mustard green.
We ordered heavily from the dim sum menu. Standouts included the mini sweet rice with shrimp and pork, a fistful of sticky rice with an intensely meaty pork and shrimp filling, all wrapped in a banana leaf; one or two of them could be dinner. The bean skin roll with pork was nicely crisp on the outside with a lively ginger-infused filling. The Wonder Siu Mai was a pork and shrimp dumpling with the wrapper halfway up the side, a bit more interesting than the plain shrimp dumplings we had. We ordered the spring rolls, expecting chilled rice-wrappers filled with vegetables and shrimp. Instead they were small fried egg rolls, unusual in their deep mushroom flavor. Our server also recommended Lobster King's take on barbecued pork: Tiny boneless ribs, meltingly tender inside and as crispy as a pork rind.
Two types of steamed buns are available -- the plummy, rich roast pork version, and the chicken filling that was savory with mushrooms. Both fillings were encased in thick, white buns, reminiscent of old-fashioned fluffy American dumplings.
At dinner we made our biggest mistake: ordering the appetizer platter. While it seemed like a fine way to try lots of things, just about every item was fried, ordinary, and not representative of what's good about the restaurant. The only exceptions were the bacon-wrapped shrimp -- tangy, crunchy, and delicious -- and the soft-shelled crabs, delectably fresh, coated in tempura flour and deep-fried, and seasoned with dried garlic and onion.
Our entrées hugely outdid the appetizer platter. The cranberry shrimp consisted of fried shrimp with a delicious sweet-and-sour cranberry sauce. The lemon fried chicken was a delight, crumb-coated and lightly browned, the sauce tart, the plate pretty with lemon slices. The most dramatic of the entrées was the Dungeness crab, a huge steamed crab atop a giant bowlful of very spicy curry fried rice (enough for four people). It was scrumptious, but a mess to eat, since you have to crack open the shell to get to the meat (although they brought crab crackers, tiny forks, and plenty of steamed towels to help the cause). One of our group asked the chef to prepare her lobster half and half: one side steamed and served with drawn butter, the other prepared with garlic sauce. Both preparations were subtle and played up the flavor of the lobster. Rounding out our feast was the more conventional shrimp with broccoli, which consisted of plenty of subtly sauced shrimp served with a plateful of bright green steamed broccoli.
On impulse we ordered mango ice cream for dessert. Wow. It was probably some of the best ice cream I've ever had: very creamy, rich, and just bursting with the flavor of the fruit. (It was served in a goblet full of small scoops, easy to share.)
We should note that the restaurant does not serve alcohol. Lobster King doesn't charge a corkage fee, and the staff is glad to keep the wine or beer cool.
As for the service, it was great at lunch. Our server (the owner, as it turned out) and the hostess each gave us good recommendations when we asked for them and answered our questions. It's great to see someone so enthusiastic about the food they're serving. Service at night was a bit disjointed, but so was our group. We got everything we needed but felt ignored once our entrée dishes were cleared, as the check was very slow to arrive. We realized they were holding it at the front of the restaurant, purposely refraining from rushing us.
That brings us to the issue of communication, which, unfortunately, can be challenging. Thanks at lunch to our server and at dinner to some in our party who knew the menu already, we were treated to some highlights (with the exception of the appetizer platter). It's not that the staff doesn't speak English -- they do. However, it's easy to feel that you're missing out on wonderful things that for some reason aren't being communicated. How do you make sure you are finding them? Always check the board in the front. Ask your server. And it's also worth looking at surrounding tables and asking about the dishes you see, or making use of the photographs in the menus. Still, there seems to be an uneasy balance at Lobster King between wanting to share wonderful food and minimizing the fear of the unknown.
Lobster King is the best kind of adventure in eating. Its many delights include the dim sum (the sticky rice in banana leaves and the bean skin roll are standouts), the fresh crab and lobster, and the lemon fried chicken. The restaurant takes great pride in the fresh seafood it serves, and it should. Yes, all the menus and the daily specials are confusing, and sometimes communication is a challenge, but it's worth persevering. Willingness to try new things will pay off in the end.
For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for Lobster King.