Dim sum–wise, the last decade was a disaster. The few places doing serious spreads were uneven at best; at worst, their uniformed attendants wheeled around carts of gummy siao mai welded to their bamboo steamers, clams drowned in rancid black-bean sauce, and bao bulging with sugary, red-tinted gristle. Thank Buddha it’s all behind us now—but only if you know where to get great dim sum.
“Dim sum” means “little things close to my heart,” an expression that designates the kind of small, starchy brunch dishes eaten in southern China. These run from dumplings with diverse fillings, to stewed chicken feet, to rice-noodle rolls, to stuffed vegetables, to sautéed blocks of radish pudding, to soy-braised tripe, to steamed pork riblets. In this Cantonese sub-cuisine, salty alternates with sweet, fried with steamed, and shrimp with pork, while the scallions and soy sauce provide subtle flavoring. Though Manhattan continues to be dim sum–abysmal (with two or three exceptions), Sunset Park has been building a collection of excellent places. At most of these, dim sum is available daily from 9 a.m. till 1:30 p.m.—but the later you wait, the staler it becomes, and the popular varieties tend to sell out early.
The best is found at newcomer East Harbor—one of the country’s most common Chinese-restaurant names, though it apparently refers to no particular geographic feature. My crew of dim sum aficionados was overwhelmed by the size of the place when we first arrived: “I feel like I’m in Los Angeles,” one said. “It’s so humongous.” Indeed, the main room boasted dozens of tables laid out in a perfect grid, separated by planters full of fake foliage. The pristine space is well-lit by chandeliers, though the elegance is diminished somewhat by flat-screen TVs blasting Sinitic soaps and chopsocky cinema. On our first visit, we primed ourselves for a pair of future dim sum expeditions by widely sampling the evening’s bill of fare.
Soups make the best intro to a Cantonese meal, and there are plenty to choose from here, most light enough that you can continue eating afterward with minimal bloating. We picked a shrimp and winter-melon soup ($9.75), a dull-looking concoction punctuated with freshly shelled green peas. It proved a perfect mellow start to the meal. Next, a roast chicken ($10.95) strolled in, with a skin so thin and crunchy that it reminded us of duck. There were also fried cubes of grouper, in what might have been beer batter, topped with a colorful confetti of chopped chilies, scallions, and tidbits of fried garlic (a treatment that appears again and again on the menu). Our favorite dish was a soupy mélange of winter-melon and bamboo pith ($11.95), and we finished up with e-fu noodles—which symbolize long life—dotted with an impressive medley of mushrooms.
Thus prepared, a larger group beset East Harbor at noon the following Sunday, just as the Christian churches and Buddhist temples were letting out. Children cartwheeled on the sidewalk as their parents looked on unconcernedly, carrying shopping bags and wearing plaid Bermuda shorts—no formalities here. There was a 60-minute wait for a table. When we finally sat down, the dining room’s mad hubbub had begun to taper off. Nevertheless, the carts still arrived every two minutes. The dim sum that day was beyond stunning, with most plates priced from $1.50 to $3. Standards like shrimp har gao had imperially thin rice wrappers, in this case enfolding a pair of carefully preened shrimp. A small dish of pig tripe was enlivened with orange zest and a squirt of sesame oil, while slender green chilies stuffed with shrimp paste came braised in chicken broth.
Indeed, the profusion of dishes skidding over the green carpet represented twice as many varieties as we’d seen elsewhere. In addition to the usual sautéed cake made with shredded radishes, there was a version presented as a pudding, dotted with dried baby shrimp, mushrooms, and crunchy water chestnuts. Char siu soo—flaky pastries stuffed with pork—arrived piping-hot and dotted with sesame seeds. The homemade tofu came picturesquely ensconced in a crock of wooden staves that might have been made by a medieval cooper. The curd was silky, and the sauce poured over it was more nuanced than the usual corn syrup.
And the chicken feet! Usually, they’re tough as nails, and you have to gnaw them like a rat to drag annulated skin from bone. At East Harbor, the pepper-braised skin is so tender that it sloughs off as you raise the chopsticks to your mouth—pleasing both neophyte and old-time chicken-appendage fanciers alike.