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Restaurants & Bars 4

Dim Sum in Atlanta

Robert Mullan | Sep 13, 200103:16 PM

Going out for dim sum must surely rank as one of the more civilized forms of culinary entertainment. One chooses one’s dining partners carefully for such an excursion, anticipating an extended social engagement that may stretch out for two hours, during which vast quantities of tea are drunk, and bite-size delicacies are eagerly anticipated, examined, and gorged upon.

Atlanta has made great strides in providing truly high-quality dim sum recently and can now easily compete with the great Chinatowns of this world: San Francisco, New York, and London. If you’ve never “done” dim sum, there’s no better place to start than right here, in Atlanta. Below you will find everything you will need to know to negotiate this exotic terrain.

General Information
Dim sum, a feast of tiny delectable morsels, is a social experience that the Cantonese Chinese often call yum cha (drink tea). This ancient custom dates from the 10th century, when chefs invented bite-sized delicacies to tease the jaded palates of fickle royals and, hopefully, touch their hearts. Dim sum translates as “touching the heart.”

In the 13th century, Mongol invaders forced the royal court—and dim sum—south to the province of Guangdong and into the capital city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton). The Cantonese made dim sum their own and added their own inventive dishes. Nibbling these tidbits—from morning to midafternoon—while sipping tea became part of the scene for friends and associates who gathered to visit, gossip, or do business.

Where the Cantonese migrated, dim sum went along. When the Communists came to power in China, many of the best dim sum chefs fled to Hong Kong, turning it into an epicurean capital, where competition drove dim sum to greater refinement.

In recent years, political edginess about the 1997 mainland China takeover has had Hong Kong dim sum masters on the move again. Their favorite destinations are in the West—the San Francisco Bay Area; Los Angeles basin; Vancouver, British Columbia; Honolulu; and now, Atlanta! They’ve brought world-class dim sum with them, incorporating tastes and customs of the West.

Classically, dim sum enhances fresh, natural flavors with a few select seasonings. The new Western offerings take advantage of fresh produce and nontraditional ingredients from other ethnic cuisines, both of which abound in the West, and put them to use with classic techniques and a sensitivity to healthful eating.

Rules of the Road
At first blush, the chaotic atmosphere of the successful dim sum house may appear daunting. Carts careen wildly among tightly packed tables with patrons shouting and pointing for plates of this and that. Novices can find this dizzying scene confusing, but there are only a few “rules of the road” required to sally forth into this crazy arena.

• Above all, be alert. The process of dim sum delivery is dynamic. As noted below, opportunities abound for making your dim sum dining experience more creative, if the diner takes a keen interest in his or her surroundings.

• Until recently, dim sum was essentially a weekend event. Increasingly, however, dim sum is becoming an everyday offering in Atlanta restaurants. Note that the selection will be much wider on the weekends.

• Skip breakfast and plan on making dim sum your major meal of the day.

• Go early, stay late. Dim sum houses in Atlanta open up between 10:30 and 11:30 am (call ahead to be sure). Most will have a waiting line shortly thereafter. As noted below, there is another advantage to following this advice: you’ll see the whole gamut of available dim sum options for the day.

• Bring as many people as you can beg, borrow, or steal. This will allow you to sample a wider range of options. Like most things in life (save, perhaps, multiple chins), the more the merrier.

• Portions are bought by the plate and generally contain multiple servings (e.g., four steamed shu mai, four lobster balls). Some come to the table singly and are meant to be divided among the diners (e.g., sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf). Only a few are intended to be eaten by a single diner (e.g., a bowl of congee). Most restaurants price their dim sum offerings at three levels, the vast majority of which are priced at the lower fee. One bamboo steamer of four shu mai may cost $1.50, a platter of BBQ duck may cost $3.00. In the “old days,” the staff would simply total the bill by counting the number of plates remaining on the table after all the diners had finished and multiply by the cost per dish to arrive at a final sum. Now, a running tally of dishes is kept on your tab, and spent dishes are removed promptly.

• Even large groupings can benefit from splitting up some of the portions. For instance, an egg roll can be divided three ways, allowing a single bite per patron. This definitely provides a tactical advantage when trying to sample each of the 40 or 50 potential selections!

• You can always order from the regular menu. A platter of steamed clams or mussels in black bean sauce is a wonderful accompaniment to the items brought by cart. Menu items go for their regular price.

• Rice is generally not provided unless you order something from the menu. One can always request it, though.

• Dim sum encompasses both sweet and savory types, without any notion of “dessert” at the end of the meal. One can (and should) indulge in sweet treats at any portion of the meal.

• As a result of the physical layout of the restaurant, there is a certain hierarchy to the delivery process. Those nearest the kitchen doors will be served first and will thereby obtain the hottest and freshest food. Thus, in larger facilities, sitting close to the kitchen doors can be a distinct advantage, since the more unusual items may not make it all the way to distant reaches of the room. Plan accordingly. If you arrive early enough to command a choice of your table, sit next to the kitchen.

• Generally, there is a somewhat predictable progression in the delivery of dishes. Items that can be made the night before arrive first (e.g., steamed dumplings). The more exotic and delicate dishes generally come out after about the first 45 minutes of service. If you don’t stay that long, you may miss some of the best stuff. A corollary of this rule is that if you see something you think you might like, grab it. It may never reappear.

• Platters of non-dim sum items will occasionally mysteriously appear from the kitchen. These are often unusual Chinese vegetable dishes or shellfish presentations, generally delivered by the manager in extremely limited quantities. Be alert for their arrival, they are always worth snagging.

• If you require additional service (more tea; an order off the menu; replacement of a broken chopstick—don’t ask, I’ll request a knife next time, though), look for what I call the “floor managers.” These are staff members who aren’t pushing the carts, delivering water, or bussing the tables. The harried cart pushers will often neglect your beseeching.

• Consider asking for chrysanthemum tea. You should consume buckets of tea with your dim sum. However, two hours of even the mildly caffeinated green tea can leave you thoroughly wired and unable to enjoy the obligatory post-prandial afternoon nap. So, instead, order chrysanthemum tea. It will often come sugared, so be sure to specify your desire for sweetness or lack thereof. Give yourself a little frisson by looking inside the teapot. Yep, flowers! Oh, and be sure to signal your worldliness by employing the universal symbol for soliciting more tea by flipping up the top of the teapot.

• The mechanics of tea drinking require a certain finesse, too. You should purse your lips and suck in a little air while drinking (can you spell “v-e-n-t-u-r-i effect”?). Emily Post would blanch, but the slurping identifies you as one of the cognoscenti.

• Traditionally, each time someone fills your cup with tea, you should lightly tap the table twice with your fingers as a gesture for “Thank you.”

• Soy sauce and some form of chile sauce will always be available at the table. For those items that arrive sauce-free, either of these condiments may be employed liberally. Some items, like the rice-wrappered dim sum benefit from a touch of vinegar, as well. Ask your “floor manager” for an allotment.

• Did I mention staying alert?

Basic Dim Sum Offerings
There are a few common threads to all dim sum aggregations, which can be divided among steamed, fried, and baked categories. Frequently encountered examples follow.

• Steamed: the workhorse cooking technique for dim sum. Offerings will usually include shu mai, little pork dumplings in the shape of miniature shopping bags, open on top; dumplings in a translucent rice wrapper, crimped shut into a crescent shape, variously filled with vegetables, shrimp, or scallops; “rice wrappers,” squishy, slippery roll-ups of rice noodle filled with BBQ pork or shrimp, which are extremely treacherous to eat, but whose gelatinous texture is oddly pleasing, if you’re open to the experience.

• Fried: lobster balls (actually composed of shrimp, and my favorite dim sum) enshrouded with a Medusa-like tangle of crisp, well, fettucine, served with a sesame-based sauce; taro cakes, sticky pudgy patties with crisp bits of pork scattered throughout; crab claws—the chitinous inner skeleton of the crab claw, from which the meat has been stripped, minced, and reformulated, then placed back on the claw, breaded, and deep fried; taro balls with a coating that flies into fragile feathery crisps (inside there is bland potato-like taro, mashed and sometimes seasoned with bits of pork); gummy sesame balls wrapped around sweet bean paste.

• Baked: many of the “desserts” fall in this category, e.g., coconut buns, egg custard tartlets, enormous hunks of yellow cake, and a strange affair seemingly comprised of puffed rigatoni and held together with melted marshmallow.

Rating Dim Sum in Atlanta—The Process
Trying to rank Atlanta’s dim sum palaces evolved into a much lengthier process than anticipated. The vagaries of weather, attendance, hunger level (or perhaps satiety control), and restaurant rehabs all worked against adhering to a consistent review process. All restaurants were visited a minimum of two times with a minimum of four reviewers. In most cases, each restaurant had at least one review session stretching over a minimum of an hour with at least six diners. Reviewers were encouraged to try everything (yes, Martha, I know they still look like chicken’s feet).

The following criteria were loosely applied during the review process:

∙ Variety of dishes presented. Clearly, one seeks the widest gamut of dishes. In general, the larger the restaurant, the wider the selection of dim sum.

∙ Innovation. Every dim sum house has shu mai. Only one has deep-fried “crab claws” with mayonnaise. We looked for places with unusual offerings. Again, this factor seems to be closely linked to restaurant size.

∙ Frequency of delivery. Dim sum enjoyment is significantly impeded by a slow progression of carts through the dining population. The best scenario calls for carts to arrive at a dizzying pace that requires the diner to make constant decisions about what to pick.

∙ Freshness. Do carts recirculate? Sometimes, less popular items will reappear, calling into question issues of freshness and warmth of dishes.

∙ Population mix. Asians know their dim sum. The greater the prevalence of Asians, the better the dim sum, in general.

∙ Cart route. Although the attentive diner can partially control for this by arriving early and seeking a table in close proximity to the kitchen doors, some facilities do a better job of ensuring that all patrons are allowed equal access to the various dim sum carts.

∙ Overall food quality. Are the dishes cooked correctly? Too much grease? Sauces appropriate for the given dish? Correct temperature?

∙ Texture. Remember that texture is all-important in this cuisine. Gummy, gelatinous, crispy, chewy—each is the result of different blends of flours and other ingredients and cooking methods.

∙ Availability of vegetarian dishes. Doing dim sum can be a less-than-fulfilling experience for the vegetarians among us. Several of our reviewers dropped out of the review sessions as a result of general unavailability of vegetarian options. But remember: one can always order off the menu, and there is a wealth of options here. No need for the veg-heads to give dim sum a miss!

∙ Quality and style of the chili sauce provided. Sauces vary widely, from a sludgy product that looks like overused crankcase oil to a sprightly variety not based on oil.

The Winners/The Losers
Here, then, are the contenders and their rankings, starting at the top and working our way down. Only one place didn’t make it to the finish line: Bamboo Luau’s Chinatown on Cheshire Bridge. BLC does not do nearly the volume of business required to support competent, much less innovative, dim sum production. Carts travel the circuit infrequently, and the dim sum is uninspiring. The remaining six restaurants are all worthy of at least one visit. Interestingly, in the case of top finishers Oriental Pearl and Canton House, neither can be recommended outside the dim sum format. Dinners and non-dim sum lunches during the week are bland and stodgy.

Oriental Pearl
Chinatown Square
5399 New Peachtree Road
Dim sum daily
By far the overwhelming favorite of our review group, Oriental Pearl is perhaps the grand daddy of all the dim sum houses in Atlanta. The adrenalin-edged atmosphere envelops you the moment you enter through the double doors, past the waterfall into the largest dim sum emporium in Atlanta. Everything here seems to move at warp velocity. The din of the business of producing dim sum is fearsome, but the results, awesome. Expect to see lots of Asians here. Unless you arrive very early, there is always a wait at this hugely popular, quintessential dim sum establishment.

Among the standouts are a deep-fried shrimp roll with a crab center; shrimp dumplings with a mayo dip; pork-stuffed, deep-fried taro root cakes; a delicious steamed, chicken-filled bao (bun); a sweet bao stuffed with corn niblets and yellow bean paste; a delightful vegetable dumpling, with (at least) carrot, shiitake mushroom, bamboo shoot, celery, and onion; very tender steamed shark-fin dumplings; congee (a rice soup, served here with duck meat shreds and Chinese crullers); sticky rice in banana leaf, which is cut open with a pair of scissors upon its arrival at your table, with an accompanying heady scent of roast duck, pork, and egg; and tapioca that’s better than “mom used to make.” There was only one small flaw to be found in this otherwise exemplary dim sum house—the chili sauce. One longs for an alternative to the dreadful version offered here (consider bringing your own siracha sauce).

Oh, and do snag a waiter and order up a plate of either the green-lipped mussels in black bean sauce or their clam counterparts. Be sure to suck down each and every drop of the briny liquor that accompanies them!

Finally, kudos to my favorite dim sum waiter in Atlanta, Bob, who unerringly fails to suggest something special for us to try.

The BBQ Corner II
Asia Square
5150 Buford Highway
Dim sum daily
Judging becomes a little more problematic after one descends from the first echelon. Reviewers found it difficult to decide between The BBQ Corner II and Canton House. I ultimately decided to deem it a tie. The BBQ Corner II is esteemed for its innovatory edge; Canton House gets the nod for its overall energy level.

This charming restaurant has seen quite a number of incarnations since Asia Square opened about three years ago. It’s been The BBQ Corner II for about a year and a half, now, and attracts a primarily Asian crowd, who, because of its extremely cramped quarters, will endure a lengthy wait to obtain the high-quality dim sum served here. It also appears to do a bang-up takeout business, so you might want to consider calling ahead for to-go orders to accompany your Sunday New York Times.

BBQ Corner II offers excellent renditions of the basic steamed shark fin, pork, and crab dumplings; a veggie dumpling filled with something that looks and tastes like sauerkraut (it’s actually “preserved” Szechwan vegetables); better-than-average scallop and shrimp dumplings; a very nice chicken and chives bao, with a sweetish dough; bean curd skin rollups with pork stuffing, which features a wonderful, grainy texture on the skin: the bean curd “leaves” are intact, phyllo-like and toothsome; a cod fillet wrapped around shrimp paste and steamed is quite novel; excellent sticky rice in banana leaf, eggy and moist, with easily recognizable pork, duck, and black mushrooms.

The entrepreneurial maitre d’hôtel regularly delivers regular menu and special, non-dim–sum items: choy sum with black bean sauce, which resembled neatly piled kindling wood; steamed clams in black bean sauce; and salt and pepper shrimp, all of which disappeared instantly to the quickest bidder.

Our theorem about new items showing up late during the serving interval was well borne out here with the appearance of tiny shrimp balls in a delicate egg sauce with a bacon garnish and whole shrimp in cruller pastry at about 1 pm. Had we left after reaching satiety, we would have missed these unusual items.

Saturdays and Sundays find Asia Square nearly impassable with shoppers plying the boutiques and markets here. Go shoulder-to-shoulder with these savvy buyers after your dim sum repast. And don’t miss Ranch 99, largest Asian supermarket in Atlanta, but, I digress . . .

Canton House
4825 Buford Highway
Dim sum daily
As with Oriental Pearl, expect throngs of Asian diners at Canton House—your clue to authenticity. Don’t be put off by the crowds of people mobbing the door at the apogee of attendance, noon; the line moves fairly quickly, since the facility is large.

Among the reviewers’ favorites were shrimp tofu in chili sauce (notable, especially, for the sauce); a very creamy curried pork in flaky biscuit; the surprisingly spicy pork and vegetable dumplings; lobster balls with peanut sauce (my all time favorite dim sum in Atlanta); steamed, sweet niblet-corn bao; bean curd leaf with pork stuffing and Worcestershire sauce; a feathery deep-fried taro root dumpling stuffed with pork: and Chinese sausage in rolled in bean curd leaf. Also yummy are the sweets, including a mango custard and a coconut-stuffed soft bun.

The floor managers in this spacious facility are especially attentive; your wish is definitely their command. The clams, mussels, and seasonal Chinese vegetables should also command your attention here.

Honto Restaurant
3295 Chamblee Dunwoody Road
Dim sum daily
Back in the days before Asian cuisine became a mega-buck business in Atlanta, Honto was there to serve diners interested in top-notch Cantonese seafood. The scads of Asian diners feasting on piles of steamed crabs and platters of the freshest steamed fish were a testament to its authenticity. Although now forced to share the market with a burgeoning number of upstarts, Honto still commands respect. Its dim sum reflects its specialization on seafood. Perhaps to a greater degree than all the other entrants, Honto’s seafood-based dim sum features that “just-plucked-from-the-briny-depths” flavor. The shrimp dumplings here are “shrimpier,” the steamed littleneck clams in black bean sauce “clammier.”

The reviewers loved the steamed pork dumplings, which were hotter and moister than most; the steamed bao stuffed with rich, chopped BBQ pork or a spicy chicken, scallion, and cilantro filling; all the shrimp-based dim sum, including an exceptionally juicy shrimp in rice wrapper and pan-fried shrimp cakes; and a fine roast duck with a crisp, star anise-flavored crust.

It should be noted that sanitary standards, once a concern, have skyrocketed lately. The latest health board rating was in the 80s, after falling into the 20s at one point.

Hong Kong Harbour
2184 Cheshire Bridge Road
Dim sum daily
Although perhaps not the tip-top dim sum available elsewhere in Atlanta, there are at least one good reason to go to Hong Kong Harbour—its location. Unlike all the other dim sum places, Hong Kong Harbour is located in Midtown, which may be convenient for those who don’t live on the north side of town. On weekdays, diners can make their selections from a small checklist thoughtfully accompanied by a pencil at every table. There is not an enormous selection, but fresh and competent dim sum can be expected. Weekends, expect a larger selection of items, with an emphasis on seafood.

Another advantage to eating here is that HKH is a small facility. Carts arrive fairly quickly at your table after departing the kitchen. So, your dim sum is hotter and fresher. Items worth pursuing here include some delicious BBQ-pork–filled bao; excellent steamed dumplings, including the mandatory shu mai; lobster balls (although without the expected peanut sauce, unfortunately); and the sweet items, like tarts and sweet bao. You might want to round out your dim sum selections with a plate of salt-and-pepper shrimp or squid (the best in town), a platter of steamed clams with black bean sauce, or a seasonal Chinese vegetable, like delicate snow pea leaf vines or baby bok choy with black mushrooms.

First China
5295 Buford Highway
Dim sum daily
First China has recently undergone renovation, enlarging the usable space within the facility by knocking out an interior wall that once separated the dining portion from some form of underutilized night club. The dim sum offered in this much more spacious and airy dining room provided a few surprises, like an egg omelet wrapped around a coarsely chopped shrimp filling, a delicate coconut gelatin, and lychee nuts in almond jelly. Other well-received items included steamed pork dumplings with nicely crunchy chopped water chestnuts; fatty but flavorful beef spare ribs in black bean sauce; round potstickers with a spicier-than-most pork filling (as opposed to the more usual crescent-shaped variety); tender chunks of steamed eggplant with a shrimp paste stuffing; and a lovely, fragrant chrysanthemum tea.

First China also features the only piped-in sound that remained audible throughout the meal. It’s not your average elevator music, either, with hits like Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Mozart).

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