Showing posts with label dim sum. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dim sum. Show all posts

Sunday, December 24, 2017

first thoughts: No Name Chinese | South Miami

2017 has been the year of the "to-do list" for me. The agenda of new restaurants I've been meaning to try continues to grow, and unlike the past several years, the usual forces of attrition (i.e., closures) haven't whittled it down quite as much as usual. Making it even more challenging, those openings haven't been limited to the ever-popular trifecta of Wynwood, South Beach and Brickell. It's good news for the residents of the outer bands of Greater Miami; it's a challenge for those trying to keep up with all the latest additions.

Witness, for example, No Name Chinese, which opened late this spring in South Miami, on a quiet corner behind the Shops at Sunset Place. No Name[1] is the second spot from the team of wine buff Heath Porter and manager Craig DeWald (their first is Uvaggio wine bar in Coral Gables), who decided they wanted to open a place serving contemporary Chinese cuisine using local ingredients paired with unusual wines.[2] They brought in Pablo Zitzmann to run the kitchen, who was last seen at the now-closed Trust & Co. in the Gables, and before that worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Jeremy Ford at Matador Room, Ricky Sauri at Nobu and then Bloom in Wynwood, and Michelle Bernstein at Sra. Martinez, among others.

(You can see all my pictures in this No Name Chinese flickr set.)

Zitmann's menu at No Name is inspired by traditional Chinese dishes and flavors, but takes plenty of liberties. So there's a crispy turnip cake (law bok gow), a Chinese dim sum standard, but it's done in the style of a Japanese okonomiyaki topped with lap cheong sausage, shiitake mushrooms, Kewpie mayo and katsuobushi, the shavings of smoked, dried skipjack tuna wriggling in the heat. Turnip cake and okonomiyaki are a couple of my favorite things, so this makes me very happy.

Shrimp toast, usually a greasy fried indulgence, here comes on as healthy-ish as avocado toast: house-made shao bing bread topped with a clean, bright minced shrimp salad, its flavors amplified with a squeeze of lime and a dusting of "crunchy garlic bomb."

Smashed cucumber salad, another Chinese staple which everyone is riffing on lately, sees the cukes marinated in soy sauce and chianking vinegar, then plated over a creamy sesame sauce and topped with a shower of sesame seeds and a bouquet of fresh herbs. It's the kind of thing you keep going back for more bites of as you eat the rest of your meal.

There's an abbreviated selection of about a half-dozen dumplings – not quite enough to start supplying a fleet of carts, but enough to satisfy some dim sum cravings. No Name's shu mai are nearly bursting with a juicy paste of Key West pink shrimp and crab, topped with trout roe for a little pop and contrast. The "angry dumplings" are filled with spicy minced chicken, and dressed with a zippy chili garlic sauce, crispy shallots, more of that "crunchy garlic bomb," and a last minute dusting of orange zest to perk up all those flavors.

(continued ...)

Monday, June 22, 2015

best thing i ate last week: dim sum at BlackBrick

For Father's Day, the kids indulged me and let me pick where to go for brunch. It had been a while since we'd done a dim sum run, and I had it on the brain. The day before, we'd driven past Tropical Chinese territory (after already having eaten lunch) while en route to the Redlands to get the last of the season's lychees. We ended up bringing home about twenty pounds of tropical fruits from Robert Is Here: fantastic jackfruit, mamey sapote, canistel, sapodilla, ciruela, three different varieties of mangoes, and – oh, yeah – some juicy, perfumey Brewster lychees. Not wanting to trek all the way down south once again on Sunday, we headed instead to BlackBrick in Midtown.

Sometimes father really does know best. The dumplings – shrimp har gow, pork shiu mai, jade duck dumplings – were great, their silky, translucent skins encasing steaming hot, juicy fillings.

Runner up: I could have just as easily picked the shattering crisp bean curd skin wrapped around an unctuous mushroom filling, or the char siu pork served with fluffy parker house rolls for some DIY bao action.

3451 NE 1st Ave., Miami, Florida

Sunday, May 4, 2014

BlackBrick (a/k/a Midtown Chinese) - Midtown Miami

"I'm an unpure purist, something like that." - Keith Richards
"Authentic" is a word I try to avoid. I'm just not convinced it means an awful lot. Too often, it's thrown about by one-upping blowhards trying to bolster their own credibility ("I spent a weekend in Cabo so I know all about 'authentic' Mexican tacos."). Even for those with more serious intentions, the definition of "authenticity" is elusive, for reasons I've kicked around before. The executive summary: "So many cuisines, even in their 'native' forms, are capable of so many infinite variations, and so many 'traditional' dishes are actually themselves the result of historical cross-cultural mash-ups that would today go by the sobriquet of 'fusion' dishes, that labeling any one particular iteration as 'authentic' is a fool's errand."

"Delicious" is another word I try to avoid. Like "authentic," I'm just not convinced it means much. Unlike "authentic," everyone knows the definition: "this food is good." But it doesn't tell you what is good about it, or why it's good. That unfocused vagueness is why "delicious" is on many food writers' (and editors') lists of banned words.

I'm not going to tell you the food at BlackBrick, Richard Hales' new Chinese restaurant in Midtown Miami, is "authentic." But I will tell you it is "delicious." And I'll do my best to tell you why.[1]

Miami has long been a Chinese food desert. For decades, the Canton chain – a paradigm of mediocrity – somehow managed to be the standard-bearer. Tropical Chinese stands out, but only as a big fish in a little pond. Hakkasan offers a much more refined experience, and their dim sum is excellent, but the price to value (and excitement) ratio of most of the rest of the Hakkasan experience is out of whack. A host of other contenders – Chef Philip Ho, Chu's Kitchen – come and go, with all the stability of Miley Cyrus. Unlike West Coast meccas like Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Vancouver, we seem to lack the populations to support a thriving Chinese restaurant market. And the waves of hyper-regional Chinese restaurants that New York has enjoyed – Sichuan, Shaanxi, Dongbei, Hunan, Yunnan and more, in addition to the more ubiquitous Cantonese – never really made their way here.

(You can see all my pictures in this BlackBrick - Midtown Miami flickr set).

I suspect Richard Hales felt much the same way. And whether because he saw a market opportunity, or just pined to eat better Chinese food and found nobody else making it, he decided to do what he could to change it. BlackBrick, a self-described "passion project," is the result.[2]

Hales' first project as chef/owner was the fast-casual, pan-Asian Sakaya Kitchen, which opened about four years ago. Serving pork buns and Korean chicken wings may not have been an entirely original notion,[3] but Sakaya distinguished itself by focusing on quality ingredients (local and organic whenever possible), fresh preparations, and bold flavors, especially the smoky heat of Korean kochujang that weaves through several dishes.

BlackBrick in some ways follows a similar model, though the service is sit-down style, and the flavor profiles look to China's Sichuan province, among other places, for spicy inspiration. Indeed, if you grab a spot at the counter in front of the open kitchen, you may periodically be inundated by billowing clouds of chili-infused smoke emanating from the wok station.

You can start with something simple and invigorating, like these chicken thighs doused in a spicy chili oil and Chinkiang vinegar, then showered with slivered green onions, cilantro, peanuts and sesame seeds. The poached chicken is served cold with its slippery skin intact, the mild, tender meat a foil for the double dose of spice and sour from the chili oil and black rice vinegar.

"Ma La." These are two more words you're going to want to know. They mean "numbing" and "hot," and their combination – in the form of Sichuan peppercorn (which causes a tingly, numbing sensation) and dried chilies – produces a compulsively tasty, "hurts so good" reaction. It's what makes BlackBrick's "Numbing and Hot Chinese Spare Ribs" so flavorful, the meaty riblets served crusted with dry spice along with wok-sauteed onions, jalapeños and bell peppers.

(continued ...)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

State Bird Provisions - San Francisco

State Bird kitchen

I keep lists of restaurants for just about any town I might conceivably visit. I don't get to do nearly as much culinary tourism as I'd like, but it's always good to be prepared. Drop me in just about any major city - several minor ones too - and in fifteen minutes I'll find a good meal.

When I get to the point of actually planning a trip, the list gets even more detailed. For a true dining mecca like San Francisco, which we've visited several times, the difficulty is not in coming up with the list but in paring it down. There are the old favorites, there are the well-known places we've still not yet gotten to, and then there are the waves of intriguing newcomers, and the challenge is figuring out what to squeeze into the limited dining opportunities.

On this particular visit, the paring down process is made both easier and harder by a couple factors. First, we've got very limited time in San Francisco, only three real dinners, in fact, as we're only in town on brief stopovers on our way to and from Hawaii. Second, this is a family trip, and I've learned from painful experience not to test their dining patience too much. I've been rationed to one tasting menu, and it's already spoken for - we've got spots at a Lazy Bear underground dinner one night, so it'll be a la carte for us the rest of the trip. That immediately eliminates a lot of the San Francisco restaurants that would otherwise be high on my list: Saison, BenuAtelier CrennSons & Daughters.

So what I'm looking for, if it makes any sense (and it does to me, anyway), is tasting menu style food, but without the tasting menu format. As I often do, I run my thoughts through Chowhound, where the Bay Area board has often steered me well. Of what's left on the list, one name keeps jumping out at me: State Bird Provisions. I'm not sure where I've heard of it, I've not read much about it, but the idea certainly intrigues: dim sum style service, pushcarts and all, but it's not Chinese food, just an eclectically assembled choice of small plates. It sounds just about perfect for our first night in town, as everyone recovers after a six hour flight.

It turns out to be exactly what I was looking for and then some.

State Bird cart

In a location adjacent to Japantown, an open kitchen hums, carts roll, and colorful little dishes pile up on the tables. But the food is geographically untethered: tofu is paired with Calabrian chiles and pesto; that doughy thing may look a bit like a char siu bao, but it's garlic bread topped with burrata cheese. And this is all no mere gimmick - eating at State Bird is fun, but the food is equally creative, thoughtful, and just flat out delicious.

(You can see all my pictures in this State Bird Provisions flickr set; click on any picture to view it larger.)

(continued ...)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chef Philip Ho - Sunny Isles

chef's special dumpling

People of South Florida, I have an important announcement. There is a new dim sum restaurant. In Sunny Isles. And it appears to be quite good.

This is not my usual style. I usually will give a place at least a couple of visits, and typically a couple of months after opening, before writing about it. But there is dim sum involved here, people. I love dim sum.

Dim sum options in Miami are fairly limited. Most often, we make the pilgrimage south to Tropical Chinese, which I prefer to some of the other more southerly options, Kon Chau and South Garden. Chu's Taiwan Kitchen in Coral Gables is in my weekday lunch rotation, and is also one of the few places in town that have xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. On the northern end of town we used to frequent Hong Kong Noodles, which was inconsistent, not exactly the cleanest place, and closed down a while ago; I could never get that excited over Sang's. And of course there is Hakkasan in the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, which is excellent in quality, but expensive and limited in selection.

Enter Chef Philip Ho.

Chef Philip Ho

Thanks to a tip on the Chowhound board, I heard that a new dim sum place had opened up in Sunny Isles, in a location that was formerly occupied by one of those inexplicably ubiquitous Chinese buffet operations. It's a sizable place, probably capable of seating a hundred people, even though the room is still bisected between a dining room and the space that used to house the buffet.


They offer both pushcart service and a printed checklist style menu, the best of both worlds for partisans of the different dim sum service styles.

Chef Philip Ho menu

It was only Little Miss F and myself, so we didn't get to do a comprehensive sampling, but everything we tried was quite good and had me eager to make a return visit. We picked exclusively from the carts, which carried most, but not all, of the menu items.

(You can see all my pictures in this Chef Philip Ho flickr set).

(continued ...)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sakaya Kitchen Dim Ssam Brunch - Midtown Miami

I wrote about my initial visit to Sakaya Kitchen about a month ago. Chef Richard Hales' focus on Korean flavors, organic ingredients, and reasonable prices all showed real promise. That promise is fulfilled, and then some, with Sakaya's "Dim Ssam" brunch, which was unveiled this weekend.

Sakaya Kitchen

While the restaurant is set up for counter service, Chef Hales has switched over to table service for the brunch, and has crafted a longer menu of smaller-portioned dishes that play on his contemporary Korean theme (thus, "Dim Ssam"). I was just about the first person knocking on the door a little after 11am this past Sunday to give it a try.

Dim Ssam Brunch Menu

Choosing was not easy. Fortunately, the prices are so reasonable that you can try a sampling of several items without breaking the bank. Everything I tried was excellent.

"Banchan" are a customary feature of Korean dining, a selection of little side dishes to accompany a meal. Different types of kimchi are typical, but usually there are a variety of other items as well. At Sakaya, ordering the banchan (for $5.99) brought seven dishes, including dried shredded cuttlefish ("ojinguh bokkeum"), bean sprouts dressed in sesame oil ("kongnamul"), tiny dried anchovies ("myulchi bokkeum"), pickled cucumbers, green bean kimchi, balloon flower root kimchi (a/k/a bellflower, or "doraji"), and marinated tofu.


Here are some closeups (note, by the way, that everything is served in disposable, recyclable dishes. I saw some kvatches when Sakaya first opened that the take-out boxes they were using for in-restaurant service were somewhat awkward; the dishes used for the "Dim Ssam" brunch were all perfectly serviceable):

dried cuttlefish
dried cuttlefish
dried anchovies
dried anchovies
balloon flower root kimchi
balloon flower root kimchi

These ranged from extremely pungent (the anchovies) to very spicy (the balloon flower root kimchi) to sweet-sour (the cucumber pickles) to sweet-spicy (the dried cuttlefish) to mild (the bean sprouts and tofu), and each with a different texture as well. It's a great way to wake up the palate and reinvigorate it between bites of heartier stuff. Just keep a beer close by.

With prices for just about everything at around $3 or under, I tried several of the menu items, starting with the Korean Pancake with Pork, Radish Kimchi and Ssamjang.

(continued ...)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hakkasan Dim Sum Brunch - Miami Beach

I have written earlier about the Miami Beach branch of Hakkasan, a spinoff of the London original which we visited several years ago. I noted then that it was a "serious bummer" that the lunchtime dim sum menu available in London was not being offered here in Miami. Happily, that oversight has now been remedied, and the dim sum menu is now available Saturdays and Sundays. I tried it this weekend with my usual dim sum companions, Frod Jr. and Little Miss F.

The Miami dim sum menu is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more abbreviated than the one you will find in London. While the London menu offers nearly 40 different smaller items, exclusive of roasted meats, soups, vegetables, noodle and rice dishes and more entrée-style dishes, the Miami menu offers only about half that many - more of a "best hits" compilation, with a few twists here and there.

These turnip cakes were possibly the best I've ever had - wonderfully crispy on the outside, creamy and tender inside, and generously studded throughout with sweetly spiced lap cheong (Chinese sausage). Frod Jr. had a "why didn't you tell me these were so good?" moment when he tried them (he had previously scorned them, believing they were tofu).

Shrimp har gow are a dim sum mainstay and often a good barometer of the quality of a restaurant. These were fresh and tasty, though I found the wrapper to be a little more elastic and firm than some of the best examples that I've sampled.

Shiu mai, typically filled with minced pork, sometimes mixed with shrimp, are another dim sum staple. Here, Hakkasan mixes things up a bit, substituting minced fish for the traditional filler, and topping them with a slice of lap cheong. These were a surprising disappointment - they tasted fishy, and putting the slices of sausage on top meant that they never really incorporated their way into the flavors of the dumpling at all.

You had to move pretty fast at our table to grab one of these "grilled Shanghai dumplings" (more often known as "potstickers"). We tried these from the dinner menu on an earlier visit and I thought then they were a great bargain (relatively speaking) at $8 for 6 pieces. The pricing of $6 for 3 pieces on the dim sum menu was less appealing (more on prices generally later).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tropical Chinese - Miami (A Traditional Jewish Christmas)

It is a Jewish custom nearly as old, and nearly as universally observed, as lighting Shabbat candles and saying the Kiddush and the Hamotzi: we go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Unlike our Christian brethren, we are not busy opening presents, singing carols, or preparing a ham or a goose for Christmas Dinner. And while most restaurants are closed for the holiday, it seems in most places the Chinese restaurants remain open. Though I'm not sure it's actually in the Torah, it is a natural and logical tradition. And possibly the best place to observe it in Miami - whether Jewish or not, and whether on Christmas Day or any other time - is Tropical Chinese Restaurant, across from Tropical Park on the west side of Miami.

While Tropical has a full menu, I've visited (many, many times now) almost exclusively for the dim sum, which is served daily during lunch hours. Service is pushcart style, with roughly a half-dozen or more heated carts working the sizable room, a glassed-in open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and nicer, more polished furnishings than you'll find at many other more bare-bones dim sum houses. Frod Jr. and I observed our Christmas Day tradition this year with some other good eaters; since a good part of the joy of eating dim sum is the variety of little bites, this really is the ideal way to do it.

You can barely get your butt into the seat before people start plying you with food, so let's move to that quickly.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hakkasan - Miami Beach

image via
Alan Yau, the pioneer of the Wagamama chain of noodle shops, opened the original Hakkasan in London in 2001. In many ways, it was a more contemporary take on the strategy coined by Michael Chow of Mr. Chow in the late 1960's and 70's: make Chinese food upscale, sexy and maybe a bit more accessible to Westerners. It worked phenomenally well, and has been a continuing success: Hakkasan London received a Michelin star in 2003, and is listed in the Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants." We were there a few years ago, and it's easy to see why it's popular. It's a slick-looking place, all black lacquer and silk, dimly but dramatically lit, carved up by wooden screens into intimate little spaces like a really elegant opium den; and the food was high quality, prepared well, and somewhat adventurous without being too intimidating. A good, fun place, though I have my doubts it really belongs on a list of the world's 50 best restaurants.

The Miami Hakkasan, the first U.S. outpost of the brand (Yau actually sold much of his stake in Hakkasan in 2008 but continues to be involved), opened in the Fontainebleau hotel in April of this year, riding the wave of foreign invaders who had plotted their strategies before the bottom fell out of the economy (Gotham Steak and Scarpetta, both also in the Fontainebleau; Mr. Chow and his evil twin Philippe; BLT Steak, Eos ...). The entrance to the Miami restaurant is not nearly as dramatic as its London cousin, which is sort of hidden away on a side street and takes you down into a mysterious basement space. Instead, you have to wind your way down a long but nondescript hallway nearly into the bowels of the hotel, then up an elevator to the fourth floor. But once you get there, the look and feel of the place effectively duplicate the cool vibe of the London original.

The menu likewise is pretty similar, if slightly shorter, than the London version. The most notable difference is that with the Miami Hakkasan only being open for dinner, it does not include the extensive dim sum menu available in London at lunchtime. That, my friends, is a serious bummer. But there are still a few dim sum offerings on the dinner menu, including a dim sum platter (featuring 2 each of 4 different dumplings) and grilled Shanghai dumplings. We tried both, as well as a duck salad, crispy Szechuan shredded beef, jasmine tea smoked chicken, Singapore noodles, stir-fried gai lan with salted fish and chili, and spring onion fried rice.

There is an obvious discipline and precision to the cooking here. When the lid of the steamer basket was removed from the dim sum platter, the dumplings looked like little jewels on display - shrimp har gow, green-skinned chive and shrimp dumplings, vegetable dumplings, and scallop dumplings topped with a sprinkle of golden tobiko each positively glistened. The fillings were fresh and steaming hot, and the dumpling skins were among the finest I've had, translucently thin and slippery but still sturdy enough not to fall apart upon being picked up. The "grilled Shanghai dumplings" were potstickers, not xiao long bao (soup dumplings), and were possibly the greatest bargain on the menu at $8 for an order of 6 (particularly compared to the $24 for the 8-piece dim sum platter). These were again expertly prepared, crispy on the bottom, steamy and soft on top, though I prefer a pork filling to the blander chicken they offer (there is also a vegetable option). A ginger-spiked black vinegar sauce helped perk these up some.

The crispy duck salad is listed among the appetizers (and seems pricy there at $22) but the portion we received could easily have served as a main course. My guess is that this is the duck meat left over once the skin is harvested for Peking duck, shredded and crisped briefly in a wok, and tossed with some greens, pea shoots and pine nuts. It was definitely my kind of salad, with about a 3:1 ratio of meat to greens.

The jasmine tea-smoked chicken had dark soy-lacquered skin and tender, delicately smoke-infused flesh; it was chopped in Chinese-style chunks but also nicely taken off the bone. The crispy "Szechuan" shredded rib eye was beautiful to look at but a disappointment to eat. The plate bore an artfully assembled tangle of strips of beef (more in the candied style of an orange beef than any Szechuan dish I've had), along with batons of mango and big slivers of red onion. But it had an awful lot more of the latter two than of the beef, and tasted much more of sweet than of any spice. The best part was probably the sticky cashews garnishing it, which had been rolled in sesame seeds (Little Miss F quickly snagged most of these).

The timidity of the Szechuan beef was all the more surprising because the gai lan (Chinese broccoli) dish we had clearly shows the kitchen does not shy from bold flavors. The gai lan, their stems slivered so they bent in a graceful tangle like the beef dish, were stir-fried with dry chiles, slivered garlic and thin crispy shards of aggressively salted dried fish. This was salt with an exclamation point, almost inedibly so, but clearly intentional and presumably a variation on a traditional recipe. The Singapore vermicelli were more moist and less curry-spiced than most versions I've had, but still quite good, speckled with green onion, slivers of red pepper, stir-fried scrambled egg, and a few shrimp here and there. The spring onion fried rice was unexceptional but provided nice ballast for the rest of the meal.

Desserts were unremarkable other than for their cost ($11). Little Miss F had a passionfruit-topped cheesecake which was paired with a bracingly sour passionfruit sorbet; Frod Jr. (predictably) had a warm chocolate cake which was indistinguishable from any other rendition.

Service was quite attentive and knowledgeable, with something of a team approach and everyone seeming to know the menu well. The only negative here was that, after having been seated at 6:30 p.m., it became fairly obvious towards the end of our meal that they were really pushing to turn the table by 8:00 p.m. I don't think I've ever been asked (seriously, with no "cute" mocking tone) "You don't want dessert, do you?" Truth was, I would have been perfectly happy to have gone and tried the gelato place in the Fontainebleau instead of ordering dessert; I think the kids did so just to spite the waiters who were trying to give us the bum's rush.

Overall I really enjoyed the food at Hakkasan (excepting the Szechuan beef and the desserts), but the price-to-value ratio is maddeningly inconsistent here. The grilled Shanghai dumplings are perfectly reasonable at $8 for an order of 6, and seem like a fantastic bargain compared to the 8-piece dim sum platter that costs three times as much. The duck salad would have been an expensive appetizer for $22, but was really a main course portion (and fairly priced for what you got). Meanwhile, the jasmine tea-smoked chicken for $19 may have been three times as much meat as the miserly strands of beef bedecked among the onions and mangoes in the $36 Szechuan beef. Sampling from their cocktail menu (at $14 a pop) will also quickly dispel any hope of coming away without serious financial damage, though a quick glance at the wine list suggested that there were actually many interesting options in a reasonable price range.
Which reminds me of one other interesting little touch. Our kids ordered lemonades, and what they got was a really unexpected surprise. Little Miss F's eyes lit up after her first sip and she exclaimed, "This tastes like key lime pie!" And indeed it did. A closer inspection revealed what looked to be freshly scraped vanilla seeds floating near the top of the drink. That is one fancy lemonade.
Clearly, Hakkasan is not the place to go for cheap dim sum or cheap anything, for that matter. But I remain convinced that if you order carefully and watch what you drink, you can actually have a very good meal and not break the bank. Even if you're not so careful, you'll probably enjoy it right up to the moment that the bill arrives.

4401 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 31340

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 24, 2009

San Francisco Dim Sum - Yank Sing, Great Eastern

Our trips to Northern California always seem to start the same way. The non-stop flight from Miami gets us into San Francisco around noon, and after six hours in the air we are ready to stretch our legs and fill our bellies. While the order of those priorities sometimes varies, the former always involves a walk across town (typically starting from the hotel in SOMA or near Union Square, winding our way through Chinatown, then North Beach, and finally out to the Fisherman's Wharf to fulfill our obligations as tourists); and the latter invariably involves dim sum.

This time around, we elected to start with the belly-filling dim sum portion of the agenda, particularly since our hotel was only a few blocks away from Yank Sing. The commonly held wisdom among SF locals these days seems to be that the best dim sum is found in the farther reaches of the Bay Area: the Richmond District in San Francisco, and even further afield in Millbae and San Mateo. But for in-city eats, Yank Sing still has a well-earned reputation that we've confirmed on several prior visits; plus, it was geographically desirable.

The original Stevenson Street location is somewhat hidden in plain sight one block south of Market Street, and with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and white tablecloths, it is one of the more polished-looking dim sum venues I've visited. Service is push-cart style, and tea is brought in stylish glass infusion pots. We selected a fairly customary lineup of items: xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings), har gow (shrimp dumplings), shiu mai (pork & shrimp dumplings), baked char siu bao (bbq pork buns), potstickers, turnip cake, fried shrimp, spring rolls, and custard tarts. We also added on four pieces of Peking duck, a nice item to be able to get as dim sum, with big slivers of crispy skin with a little meat attached, to be stuffed into little steamed buns along with some hoisin sauce and shredded scallion.

The xiao long bao are something of a house specialty and are indeed a fine example. The dumplings have a smooth, thin, just slightly elastic shell, within which lurks a filling of minced pork bathing in a mouth-filling gulp of rich broth (they are made by including cold, gelatinized broth in the filling, which warms back to a soup when the dumplings are steamed). Yank Sing's recommended eating method is to gently place the dumpling in a soup spoon (without breaking the wrapper), and ladle over some ginger-infused vinegar - from there you're on your own. I bite off a bit from the top of the dumpling, slurp a bit of broth, then eat the rest in one gushing mouthful.

XLB have made occasional appearances in Miami (briefly at Jumbo, in the North Miami Beach location now housing Hong Kong Noodles; at Mr. Chu's, a dim sum place on South Beach which has now moved to Coral Gables as Chu's Taiwanese Kitchen, though I don't believe they have dim sum service any longer; I have heard the newly opened Philippe on South Beach will be offering them, though I haven't yet been to confirm) but they are pretty hard to find here. That's too bad, as when done well I think they are one of the crowning achievements of dim sum cookery. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F certainly thought so, too. We ended up having to order two rounds (6 dumplings apiece) and I still only got two XLB total.

The rest of the dim sum was all good, high quality, and pleasing, though there was nothing that really floored me. Despite advertising that they offer over 100 selections, the choices available during our visit seemed much less broad, and focused primarily on traditional, middle-of-the-road items. I saw no chicken feet, no tripe, nor anything else particularly exotic. In Yank Sing's defense, I think the Rincon Center location may have a broader selection, and on a return visit on the back end of our trip (return visits are highly irregular on the same trip for us, but the kids insisted on another XLB experience) we did try a few more unusual items, including a bright yellow steamed dumpling (colored with egg yolk?) stuffed with minced vegetables, and a tofu item topped with an assertively-flavored dice of onion, ginger and chiles.

The carts are many and are regularly moving throughout the restaurant, and special items also get circulated frequently (the Peking duck, lettuce cups, big pieces of baked sea bass). Servers are generally very friendly, including one who diligently hunted down some fresh XLB for us on our second visit when we didn't see any circulating. The high volume helps keep everything fresh and hot, which is always a plus.

I was somewhat floored by the bill after our first visit, which came out to well over $100 for about 11 items - easily the most I have ever paid for dim sum for 4 people. On our return visit I got a look at a pricelist and at least began to understand how it got so high. Even the cheapest items go for around $4-5 an item, and many, like the xiao long bao, are around $10 or even higher. The Peking duck goes for a whopping $5 a piece. Whether or not the dim sum is worth this kind of premium (easily 2x what I'm accustomed to seeing at many other places) is certainly open to debate.

And while I'm not one of those people who seem to believe (particularly when it comes to "ethnic" food) that the dirtier the place, the better the food (I'm not sure what distinguishes House of Nanking other than its grimy windows) - there is something that seems to me just a little too sanitized about Yank Sing. It's not so much the clean restaurant and the white tablecloths - it's the absence of any offal or even for that matter any meat on the bone that seems sort of odd. The food is good, and the xiao long bao are exceptional; but I miss some of the variety that often makes a dim sum meal so pleasing.

Yank Sing
49 Stevenson Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Great Eastern menuThe following day, we ended up again retracing steps from one of our prior visits to San Francisco, and went to Great Eastern for lunch. Great Eastern is a big, bustling place in the heart of Chinatown, with two floors filled with tables, and the back of the restaurant occupied by several tanks holding live seafood - dungeness crabs, spot prawns, ling cod, geoduck clams, and other delicacies. They offer checklist-style dim sum service at lunchtime, and also a lengthy menu that runs the gamut - a cornucopia of seafood items, unsurprisingly, but also Chinese BBQ, cold platter items, all sorts of soups, clay pot dishes, and plenty else to boot (goose chitterlings, goose web, sea cucumber, etc.).

We had a cold platter with thinly sliced beef shank, duck tongues, and jellyfish. The beef shank was nice, with a slightly gelatinous texture, and a rich flavor not completely overwhelmed by soy and five-spice. The jellyfish I'm also growing quite fond of, its long, slightly bouncy strands reminding me both in appearance and texture of a thick cellophane noodle, dressed with sesame oil and a touch of vinegar. The duck tongues, however, have yet to demonstrate their allure to me - somewhat firm, not too flavorful, and with a bit of cartilage running up the middle that was a tad too hard to comfortably chew up. After a few tries I figured out how to scrape the meat off the strip of cartilage, but it still hardly seemed worth the effort. These seem like they'd be better in a warm preparation, or perhaps confited.

The dim sum we ordered was generally pretty pedestrian and unexciting (the kids scorned the xiao long bao here as decidedly inferior to those at Yank Sing, though they still finished them); a "house special" dim sum item of "pasta" roll with spicy XO sauce was at least something I'd never seen before. The somewhat thick rice pasta sheets I've often seen wrapped, crepe-like, around roast pork or other fillings were here rolled and then sliced crosswise (like cinnamon buns) and dressed with a chunky chile-garlic sauce and also some shredded meat.

The real standout at Great Eastern - as I could have predicted - was the seafood. Our table was right next to those tanks, and from the moment we sat down I couldn't take my eyes off the spot prawns dancing above our heads. Our server said the minimum order was 1 pound (for $35) which he recommended we get steamed. Done. This order brought at least 8 beautiful prawns, split in half cross-wise and dressed with a colorful and flavorful confetti of garlic, ginger, chiles and cilantro. They were beautifully fresh and sweet.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of San Francisco's dim sum and Chinese options, but it is these kinds of experiences that always make me skeptical of any claim that a particular place is the "best" dim sum in town (or any other food genre for that matter). Yank Sing may have the best xiao long bao in town but I'm dubious they could run the table for every other variety of dim sum too. The fresh seafood at Great Eastern was excellent but the rest of the stuff was fairly pedestrian. I suspect that with enough exploration, you could find plenty of "bests" for different individual items. Maybe next visit we should squeeze in a field trip to Millbrae.

Great Eastern
649 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

Great Eastern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hong Kong Noodles - North Miami Beach

Let's digress from this extended digression into Spain, for a moment, and return to the original theme - Miami eats. The stretch of NE 163rd Street between US1 and I-95 is about as close as Miami comes to having a "Chinatown." It's not particularly a community in any normal sense of the word, but there is a concentration of Chinese restaurants and markets along this stretch of blacktop (as well as some of the more curious ethnic mixes of places within a few square feet of each other that you'll find in South Florida - Chinese bakery / Jamaican roti shop / Jewish deli all in the same strip mall?). For a few years we would occasionally frequent a place called "Jumbo" on the south side across from what used to be called the 163rd Street Mall (the mall's been rehabilitated and is surely called something more interesting now) for dim sum; about a half-year or so ago, Jumbo got something of a makeover and became "Hong Kong Noodles." Since then I've popped in several times, mostly for dim sum lunch. They do menu-style (i.e. no pushcarts, just check off what you want on the photocopied menu) dim sum at lunchtime, along with Chinese bbq (usually some nice ducks and pork hanging from hooks in the back of the restaurant), lots of noodle and congee dishes, plus they have tanks of live fish and seafood (crabs, lobster, a few kinds of fish) and a good number of inscrutable specials written only in Chinese on a white-board on the wall.

I love the possibility of having a dim sum place in North Miami, instead of having to trek down south to Tropical / Kon Chau / South Garden, but our dim sum experiences with "Hong Kong Noodles" have been somewhat up-and-down. On my most recent visit, the standout was a fried shrimp dumpling, wrapped in a triangular wonton, which was freshly fried, plump with moist diced shrimp, and served with a thick sweet mayo for dipping. The fun gor also seemed fresh, and the translucent wrapper had a good texture (substantial but not too gummy), but the filling, ground meat flecked with cilantro and studded with peanuts, seemed to be missing a little something flavor-wise. The pan-fried turnip cake could have been warmer, but was studded with nice bits of smoky sausage. Beef balls wrapped in bean curd had a nice fluffy texture and came out steaming hot, but were also a touch muted in flavor.

On other visits I've had similarly inconsistent experiences. One time the shrimp har gow were outstanding; another time they tasted as if they'd gone off. I've had good stuffed bean curd skins, another time they came out still cold in the middle. Tripe, supposedly with black bean sauce, was bland unless swiped vigorously through some chile oil and soy sauce. The roast duck was pretty good, and I've enjoyed the congee with pork and preserved egg. Their chicken feet were pretty good (though when Mr. Chu's on South Beach was on top of their game, I think theirs were the best in town); I've learned that while I love chicken feet, I'm not nearly as fond of duck feet (though it's nice to have a place where they're available to learn such things, and I chalk this one up purely to a matter of personal taste). They have a number of sweet dim sum options, including "Chinese donuts" (more like a big fried sweet loaf of dough) which Frod Jr. and Little Miss F enjoy.

I've found the staff there to be pretty friendly, and the price is certainly right - almost all of the dim sum items are priced at $2.95 per serving. Plus, there's probably enough exotica on the menu (to say nothing of some good "Engrish" items - "steamed sweat rice," "three nut frog") to keep any adventurous eater busy for a while. I just wish the execution could be a bit more consistent.

Hong Kong Noodles
1242 NE 163rd Street
North Miami Beach, FL
Hong Kong Noodles on Urbanspoon