Across America, democracy usually boils down to “Which of these rich white men am I going to vote for?” But what if the concept were applied to a restaurant review, letting typical diners decide what’s good and what’s bad? To put the notion to the test, two carloads of hungry diners set out for the deepest wilds of suburban New Jersey on a Sunday afternoon. Our destination was the southern outskirts of East Brunswick, where a pal had heard about a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant from a 300-pound friend who lived nearby and enthusiastically recommended it. The hulking place looked like something that crawled east from Los Angeles, with a giant parking lot and elaborate landscaping. A foray the previous weekend with a smaller group, in which a few of us had wolfed down spectacular dim sum, gave us high hopes for the current expedition.
Not counting me, our party numbered 10, including a vegetarian science fiction writer, a Christian evangelist, a brace of journalists, a female engineering student, a media hoaxer, a Web editor, a restaurant critic from Ithaca, and a pair of amiable lactose intolerants. We arrived to find our reserved table set with scarlet napery and surrounded by heavy crystal chandeliers. “I feel like I’m at the prom again,” one of the students exclaimed. I ordered 20 dishes—over the objections of the waiter—trying to plumb the entire 14-page menu. Each diner was given a ballot and asked to vote for three favorite dishes in order of preference, then write a five-word description of each. I didn’t vote, but analyzed the results by awarding three points for every first-place vote, two points for second place, and one point for third—60 points in all.
The overwhelming favorite, receiving nine points—with three first-place finishes—was the most expensive dish, described on the menu as “superior shark’s fin, sea cucumber, and shredded abalone with fish maw soup” ($28.95). Of the brown viscous potion, one diner noted with praiseworthy economy, “My dad (Chinese) would approve,” but later told me, “All the ingredients are dried, so it’s not a good test of the kitchen.” Second place, with eight points, was a casserole called beef flank in curry sauce ($10.95), a bubbling cauldron of meat chunks and onions. An organ eater was glad to find pieces of tendon in there, while one of the drivers observed, with faulty punctuation, “Tender, fresh curry good taste.” Clams with black bean sauce ($13.95) grabbed third place with six points, though a second-timer noted, it wasn’t as good as the dim sum version the previous weekend. Runners-up included a rendition of Peking duck accompanied by gummy pancakes (five points), and a colorful vegetarian dish of fried noodles with mixed vegetables that, with four points, was tied for fifth place with a whole deboned Hunan fish presented in a syrupy sauce.
Sixteen of the dishes received plaudits from at least one person, which means that four received no votes at all. These were: jelly fish in sesame sauce, scallion pancakes, beef pancakes, and sesame noodles made with green linguine. The entire meal cost $325, including tip. The general conclusion was that, while Sunny Palace is not up to the level of quality we’d hoped for, it provided an interesting alternative to grittier and funkier New York Chinese restaurants.