Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Dim Sum Treasure Hunt

After two and a half weeks of eating interesting but kind of disappointingly bland Chinese food in the heart of China, we were really excited to be heading out to Hong Kong (that's me on Avenue of Stars in Kowloon) for some real Cantonese ... or as Cantonese as you could get without going into Canton. It had been an exhausting trip thus far (which you'll realize as I continue to backtrack in time to the beginning of the trip), and it was bittersweet to see the end of our honeymoon in plain sight.

When we first arrived in Hong Kong, we were tired, cranky, and hungry ... and ever so grateful to be on the last domestic flight overseas. That's not to say that the flights weren't pleasant; in fact, they were far more comfortable and accommodating than American domestic flights. However, we were just beat from half a month of flights almost every other day. HK was the last stop and after months of anticipating true Cantonese food, we were psyched. Obviously, the first task on our list -- find dim sum.

The search was on!

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived and were able to leave our hotel, since we'd had to wait to check in due to a problem with our room (i.e. honeymooners should not have to decide which twin bed each one would have ...), and I was concerned that we wouldn't be in time for dim sum. In New York, my family had always gone early in the morning, and dim sum is generally a kind of brunch tradition in the Western hemisphere, as far as I knew. However, my knowledge of yum cha culture was limited due to coming from a restaurateur family, meaning that if we went out, we had to be back in time to open the restaurant(s). Therefore, we've never caught the tail end of the dim sum meal hours; rather, we scored tables at the very beginning.

We found out that we were staying on Kowloon Island rather than the main island, Hong Kong Island ... and thus halfway up the creek with nary a paddle in sight. The guidebook we'd be studying diligently had restaurant recommendations for Hong Kong Island, but not really anything for Kowloon other than shopping, which we did later. But anyway, this meant that we had no idea where to go, and since the area we were in was less Westernized and industrialized and more locally commercialized and retail-oriented, English was a little less prominent than, say, other languages I didn't speak. We figured we'd just put our best feet forward and head ... well, forward.

Away we went, and after talking brokenly with a police officer on a corner about six blocks down, we headed in the general direction of "that way." He didn't remember the name of the restaurant but pointed vaguely towards a more bustling part of the city, and satisfied me with a "Hai!" when I asked, "Ho ha churn fun?" ("Good noodle-wrapped shrimp?") "Nathan Road" being said several times in an adamant tone convinced us that we should head towards that particular road, and we crossed the street in search of Nathan.

After asking more vendors and random people where we should be going, we ascertained that yes, Nathan Road, a long street leading all the way down to the harbor, with luxury shops and watch/fine jewelry stores galore, was most definitely the place to be. The glitz and glitter of the shopping district, however, wasn't enough to distract us from our mission -- we were huuuungry!

After trekking for what seemed to be ages to our growling bellies, we finally noticed restaurant signs, hidden amongst the flashing lights and neon signs for everything else. I say noticed because later, on the way back, we realized we'd in actuality passed MANY dining establishments -- they do say hindsight is 20/20, right?

"Jade Restaurant," read the sign, and it was a welcome sight. Through an alley, up some narsty stairs, and we burst into a fully functional dining room, the sound of slurping soup and clank of dishes providing a welcome theme song to our arrival. However, after a quick glance around, we realized that we were not where we needed to be. There were no bamboo steamers, nor were there carts of food. No tanks of bug-eyed fish and wee beasties from the sea, and the guy that greeted us was simply too friendly. This was not a tea house for dim sum, but rather, a soup restaurant, specializing in savory meats and roast delicacies -- delicious, but not what we needed.

The kind host -- whose English was excellent, might I add, the 100 years of English occupation lending a British tone to his speech -- gave us directions, though, to a dim sum establishment right around the corner. He was even nice enough to write down the Chinese ("ming sing," or "star/celebrity").

Well, once we had the Chinese to match up to the sign, it was smooth sailing, and we found it right away. It was a lobby, with a lady in front at a high desk like a doorman's stand and with an elevator behind. I asked her in Chinglish whether yum cha was still being served, and to my great delight, she nodded an affirmative. We were escorted to the elevator to the second floor, where we were promptly greeted by tanks and tanks of exotic fresh seafood, from spiny lobsters to the near-mythical and notorious phallic mollusk geoduck; from huge, frowning grouper fish (or "garoupa," as they call it on their menus) to live abalone and fat winter frogs. Whoa, right?

We were seated in a huge dining room and sat at a yet-to-be-cleared table, but that was remedied rather quickly, and hot, bitter jasmine tea, dark and pungent, was brought to our grateful table. I couldn't read the Chinese "sushi list" of dim sum (I call it that since you check off what you want from a long sheet of paper), and a brusque but professional headwaiter came and took our order. No carts here, either, to Boy's great disappointment (he loves being able to point at things and instantly identify his favorite dishes -- "better than a picture menu ...," I allow him to say as I shudder at any appearance of a low-rent "picture menu), but fortunately, my grasp of Cantonese was basic enough to get the essentials out -- namely, the names of dishes.

We had all of this:
Yum, yum -- fresh wide rice noodles enveloping luscious steamed shrimp, covered in a sweet, thin soy sauce. (Ha churn fun)
Tangy, strong-smelling ("foul" to many if you're not used to pungent vegetables) Chinese leeks and smaller, well-cleaned fresh shrimp dumplings wrapped in sticky rice flour. (gau/gow choy gow)

Thin wonton wrrappers, stuffed to the point of near-explosion, with fatty minced pork and large chunks of shrimp throughout, topped with the orange-red sushi roe caviar, which is half-melted by steaming, preserving a little bit of the crunch of roe while letting the flavor seep into the top of the dumpling. (Shu mai)
World-famous steamed barbequed pork buns, sweet and rich, and ever so filling. (Char siu bao)

To make it all even better, I'd been craving shrimp Cantonese Chow Mein (which they just call Chow Mein, obviously ... but it is different in every region) and saw a picture of exactly what I wanted on the front cover of their dinner menu, which was already on the table. After much pointing and gesticulating, I was able to get a plate of this as well, for $10 Hong Kong more (since it was a Sunday?)! Hooray!

This is one of my favorite dishes of all time. By that, I mean it's up there with fried shrimp po-boys, roast duck noodle soup, and chicken pad thai. I can eat it all the time, any time, at a moment's notice. There's just nothing not to love about it. It's a pan-fried nest of wonton noodles, thin, chewy in the center but made crisp, topped with fat, mild-flavored butterflied shrimp in a rich, smooth, and oily white sauce. Black mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and sometimes, snow white mushrooms are mixed in, and Chinese broccoli, those blooming thin stalks of leaves and broccoli rabe, usually accompanies and adds a lovely color. The light but flavorful sauce covers the noodles and the taste of the shrimp permeates both that sauce and the noodles, congealing into a pleasant thickness as the noodles get slightly moistened. Frickin' fabulous, although not as sexy half-eaten here. I got overexcited and forgot I was supposed to be taking pictures. Oops.

Hong Kong was off to an awesome start, and Star Restaurant was a big part of that. It's too bad they had to ruin it all for me later ... but that's another story for another post.

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