A Dim Sum Renaissance Is Upon Us
This trio of carrots is of the same fabrication as sesame balls, with watercress stems providing greenery.
Great dim sum has returned to New York City during the last couple of years. The decade before had been a dim sum Sahara, with the old-guard places serving desiccated dumplings and steamed buns filled with red gristle to half-empty dining rooms.
The hollow inside of the carrot proved to be filled with peanut butter. Not a bad match of flavors.
All of a sudden, dim sum bounced back at places like East Harbor and Dun Huang, with pristine har gao enfolding shrimp of astonishing circumference, chive dumplings of crystalline clarity, sesame-strewn flaky pastries of surpassing delicacy, and fresh bean curd fragrant of ginger, maneuvering in the cramped space on shiny carts jammed up like cars on a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.
I developed several theories for this bounce-back, one of which was Chinese immigrants who had moved to the suburbs being eager to show their fully assimilated children what the best part of their youths had been in the city. Another theory suggested that, with the increase of interest in food, dim sum has proved one of the most marketable products that Chinese restaurateurs have come up with, filling hanger-size restaurants with excited diners of diverse ethnicities at hours of the day and week that most restaurants yawn empty. A third reason might be the migration of talented chefs from China to higher-paying jobs in the U.S. made possible by the current economic climate.
Whatever the reason, dim sum has become so good that I've eaten it for six Sundays in a row, and plan to continue doing so. I think of it as my favorite brunch.
Last Sunday I found myself at a restaurant I hadn't visited in over a decade--Jing Fong. In 1997, it had been the subject of a consent decree that saw the owners compensating abused employees, whose tips they'd stolen, to the tune of $1.3 million dollars. In the interim, the space was another restaurant, but after an extensive renovation, the premises is again Jing Fong. Hopefully, the labor infractions are behind it.
Holding 1300 hungry souls, plus staff, Jing Fong may be the largest restaurant in New York.
A crisp lotus-root sandwich was one of the highlights of a recent dim sum meal at Jing Fong.
The second-floor space is ornate in the usual way, with lots of gold and red, and sight lines that would have made the Roman Coliseum seem cramped. Officially, the room holds 1,300, making it probably the biggest restaurant in New York City.
As the carts came rolling by, I started seeing things I hadn't seen in the other dim sum parlors lately. Some items were clearly improvised: a trio of carrots with watercress stems splayed on the plate, for example. The flesh of the carrot was fashioned out of the gooey starch that goes into sesame balls, but a surprise was in store once we pierced the interior--peanut butter! This salute to spring was certainly the concoction of a freestyling dim sum artist.
There were sometimes competing versions of a single dish. Chicken feet came in a soy braise, or having been boiled in what tasted like celery broth. Both versions were estimable. You could have the usual fried radish cake, or a version that cast the same ingredients as a pudding. There was suckling pig that circulated later in our meal, and plates of crisp-skinned duck and barbecued pork, plus all the usual dumplings and buns and jooks (congees).
The surreal aspect of dining in the same room with 1,299 people is reason enough to go, but the dim sum will keep you coming back. Welcome back, dim sum!20 Elizabeth Street, 212-964-5256
Studded with tiny dried shrimp, the savory radish pudding.
Below: Two types of chicken feet are available at Jing Fong.
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