October 13, 2008

"Order to Your Heart's Content"

This is how the Chinese word dim sum translates in English. And on Monday at lunch, I did.

Paul and I have been tip-toeing around dim sum, little plates of dumplings and steamed buns, when we were able, but hadn't yet made it to a full-fledged traditional dim sum restaurant. A colleague invited us to join him for lunch at the famous Maxim's in the Hong Kong City Hall. It is described, by colleague Joyce Lau in the Herald Tribune, as "a rough-and-tumble Cantonese experience. ...There are no menus. Instead, Chinese women push around carts with steamed things in bamboo containers, and you order by pointing."

The restaurant is on the third floor and looks out at Kowloon side. The dishes are refined, and the tea cups have handles. The table cloths are starched and the decoration is ornate. It was a lovely, if sprawling, space.

All along I had had the feeling that there was a great dim sum secret that would only be revealed on this side of the Pacific. As it turns out, there was a revelation, just not the one I expected.

In fact, all the best dim sum has been successfully transported to California. San Francisco, the sprawling eateries of the San Gabriel Valley, they can do everything The Fabulous Hong Kong Maxim's can do.

Except replicate Maxim's fabulous view of Victoria Harbor.

We ordered from ladies pushing trolleys. Starting with rice-noodle wrapped vegetable dumplings and spring rolls and barbecued pork buns and continuing with lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice, beef balls, shrimp dumplings and pork dumplings. It was all excellent. But aside from the xiao long bao -- Shanghai-style soup dumplings -- I didn't encounter anything I hadn't already seen and tasted.

In fact, I saw less than usual. Whether this was because we were there toward the end of the lunch service or that this restaurant is popular with Western tourists, I don't know.

My family likes to go to NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, Calif., for dim sum on Sundays. We are often the only "Western" family there, among hundreds (the restaurant seats about 1,000) of Chinese families there after church. The ladies there speak less English than the ones at Maxim's and there is definitely more pointing.

But there are seemingly more options and more exotic things. Running closely behind the barbecued-pork char siu bao as my favorite dim sum is the spicy salted squid. I saw something that looked like pork rinds at Maxim's, and they had spicy cuttlefish -- what looked like squid tentacles. But that was the most exotic thing I saw. Not even any chicken feet.

My meal on Monday was excellent. The atmosphere is lively. But there was just the one thing that came by on the carts that was any different than what I'd had before.

Paul's colleague Mike, who took us, told us that unless we dine with people who speak Cantonese, there will always be things that are off-limits to us. He recounted a time at a well-known Hong Kong restaurant and said his meal was fine, but not exceptional. But when he brought a Cantonese-speaking friend along, the meal was superb.

The Chinese, he said, don't tend to order off the menu; they use it simply as a guide to start a conversation. "What's good tonight?" is usually the first question a Cantonese-speaking diner will ask. We, of course, are at a disadvantage and must rely on the menu, however limited it seems.

The fabulous thing about dim sum, though, is that we can see what's on offer, and come to our own conclusions about "what's good."

And it points out a more global concept: The U.S., with its immigrant populations, has ethnic restaurants on a par with the originals, I have come to believe.

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